Austin American-Statesman - Armed with GEDs®, inmates can triumph over their pasts

AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, February 10, 2008

 

Austin American-Statesman Editor Rich Oppel recently served as a GED® graduation speaker at the Travis State Jail. He did a fantastic job as speaker, and he followed up with a very positive column about WSD and its GED® program.


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Armed with GEDs®, inmates can triumph over their pasts
Rich Oppel

On a recent morning, at the end of a long road that drops into an old pasture and emerges at a rectangle of high fences in far eastern Travis County, pride had to make way for pain in a locked and guarded room.

Two hours after I entered this emotional scene, I drove out, passing a kennel of baying bloodhounds, and questions lingered:

Why the pain? Is it properly distributed?

This was graduation day in the Windham School District. Never heard of Windham? That's because its schools are scattered within the walls and fences of units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

This particular branch was at the Travis State Jail, located at 8101 FM 969, which houses 1,100 inmates. The school is one of the 88 schools in the TDCJ.

Seated in folding chairs on one side of a large room were 36 men. Some wore blue gowns, others white prison uniforms. Most were between 18 and 35, though a couple of 43-year-old were mixed in.

Their faces were expressionless, eyes deflected in the protective human mask that is useful if you are a felon trying to survive behind bars.

On the other side of the room were 30 to 35 people -men, women and children. They were the fathers and mothers, wives and girlfriends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

When asked if they had anything to say to the prisoners, emotions welled up among these families.

"To my graduate, Julien, my husband, I love you."

"Rowdy, my son, I love you. You make me very proud."

"People make mistakes. Just don't make the same mistake twice, William. We'll set up the business when you complete... your dues."

"We love you. We miss you. Keep up the good work."

"Delton, I hope this is a right step in a positive direction."

"Donald, God has a plan for you. Everyone makes a mistake. Let God lead you."

Among the inmate across from them, eyes reddened, head swiveled, a nervous wave was proffered, sullen faces turned to smiles and finally, eyes met eyes.

There was good reason for pride. Thirteen of the prisoners had earned their General Educational Development (GED®) certificates.

Another 11 had completed courses in business computer information systems, and three had earned certificates in landscape design and construction maintenance.

I felt pain, too, in seeing what these young men had done to their families, and wondered why it was necessary, because you could see these guys working at the local hardware store, hotel, hospital or business office.

Perhaps that is where we will see them next, because their commintment to earning a certificate and learning work skills gives them a good chance of staying out of prison.

The average Windham student never attained a high school diploma, functions at a 6th grade level, has an IQ of 85, and is 34 years old.

Among the 1,100 here at the Travis State Jail, you sense that these 36 are made of the right stuff.

"Congratulations, for putting up with all of the negativity of the dorms," said Ashley Anderson, the building captain, noting that they had borne ridicule by other inmates to seek an education and have a vision for the future while others sat on the edge of their bunks.

As I've written before, I have a GED®, too. That's why I was here. I never served time, but I know that these guys aren't that much different than I was at age of 18. They may have pulled a stick-up or beat up somebody. They got what they deserved, though their families didn't deserve this.

But everybody needs a hand up, and now these guys in blue and white were getting that help.

Help from the warden, Corey Ginsel, and the school principal, Sandy Haak, and teachers like those who showed up for the graduation on their day off -Joe Castillo, Richard Coppedge, Suzanna Grant and Terrence Smith.

And most of all, they were getting help from the families on the other side of the room, the people who shared the pain and still love them.

 

Other articles that may interest you:

Partners and Pathways for Empowering Change
Windham School District’s Review of Achievement and Opportunity

The Windham School District (WSD) has been dedicated to empowering incarcerated men and women in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to transform their lives through academic and job training since 1969. In School Year 2016, many new initiatives and solutions were implemented to improve programming.

The WSD’s viable partnerships and educational efforts create second chances for brighter futures; however, effectively serving adult offenders with limited or non-existent academic experience presents real challenges.

The WSD recognizes its responsibility to constantly review programs and services for offenders to better prepare them for transition back into society.

Advancing the WSD to provide higher quality learning opportunities involves identifying and applying interventions that lead to a high probability of success.

 

 

'We are Windham' video proudly explains why, how WSD changes lives. Now available online. - "We are Windham. We are ready for change. We are second chances for men and women formerly incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. We change our society." So begins "We are Windham," a recruitment and informational video created by WSD explaining why Windham focuses on helping offenders across Texas become job-ready and change their lives for success upon release.

WSD meets families in PACT Conference Oct. 3 - The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) will be hosting a free informational conference for offenders’ families and members of the general public on Oct. 3. The Public Awareness — Corrections Today (PACT) conference will be held at the Sam Houston State University Criminal Justice Center in Huntsville and will be coordinated by the TDCJ Ombudsman Program. Windham School District will be offer a presentation from 1-3 p.m. at the conference, as well as provide one-on-one information and resource materials to participants.

Pablo Gonzales: Thanks to job-focused training, project manager enjoys work,  family, life - "When I got out of prison with a felony, nobody wanted to hire me," says former offender Pablo Gonzales, who overcame the difficulties of building a career after release from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Thanks to educational opportunities, vocational training and strong faith, Gonzales is now a project manager near San Antonio for American Directional Boring Companies Inc. (ADB). He helps install aerial and underground utility jobs and handles OSP/ISP fiber optics cable work for communication clients in South Austin, such as Google, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.

Central Texas welders thank CTE teacher for training, influence - Locked up as teenagers and serving about 20 years each for murder charges, Candelario Davila and Jose Sanchez are unlikely success stories.  They were destined to years of solitary time in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Administrative Segregation, lacking motivation, mentors and job skills.  However, a correctional educator they describe as "father figure" and "the greatest welder ever" provided the intervention needed to transform their lives. Today they are gainfully employed as welders in the Austin area, enjoying their families, freedom and work.