‘IGNITE’ing an educational fire in U.S. jails

When Deputy Conner Bigelow began working in 2019 for the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan, he described his job as typical of a “pretty normal” jail. “We were just kind of functioning,” he says. “We were sending people to court, sending people to prison, getting people out.”

Then, on Sept. 8, 2020, an expansive education program dubbed IGNITE—Inmate Growth Nationally and Internationally Through Education—entered Bigelow’s life. It was the brainchild of Sheriff Christopher Swanson, a longtime veteran of the department, whose first job in the sheriff’s office in 1993 was as a jail deputy. The program for inmates, which involves two hours of classes a day, five days a week, involved a curriculum that went far beyond what was offered in most other jails.

IGNITE offers a variety of courses and seminars taught in-person and online, with solid support coming from businesses and community residents. For example, a “labor partner” donated $5,000 for a virtual reality platform that has provided welding instruction for inmates. The county’s Mt. Morris Consolidated School District sends instructors to help inmates graduate with a full high school diploma. Inmates can earn certification for work in food services, and a class has recently been added for barbering. A social work course, provided by the University of Michigan, combines inmates with undergraduate students, who come to the jail for in-person sessions. In addition, other classes focus on mental health and various life skills such as financial literacy or parenting.

An important element of IGNITE for Swanson is that it operates as a meritocracy. While there are numerous long-term benefits, such as better post-release job prospects and family reunification, inmates also receive immediate short-term benefits for the classes they successfully attend, certificates they receive and the progress they make. This includes more time out of their cells, for example, or extra visits from family. IGNITE is optional for inmates and offered in all seven of the jail’s inmate living spaces or “pods.” About 40% of inmates currently participate.

Actual graduation ceremonies with caps and gowns are held, and inmates’ families are invited to help celebrate their relative’s new job certification, course completion or high school diploma.

While educational initiatives have been promoted more commonly in prisons, the IGNITE focus greatly exceeds what’s usually available in jails. “We’ve had a void when it comes to jail populations,” says Swanson.

Data on the success of IGNITE is preliminary, but initial signs point to a dramatic decrease in jail violence. In 2011, the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office recorded 354 acts of jail violence when tracking data for the Michigan Department of Corrections. In 2021, the year after IGNITE started, data tracking showed 7 incidents.

No wonder that Swanson’s culture change caught the attention of the National Sheriffs’ Association, which was so enthusiastic that it has turned it into a national initiative.

A Challenging Culture Change

Rolling out IGNITE in Genesee County, the home of Flint and the fifth largest of Michigan’s 83 counties, was not easy. “This was a shock to the jail culture,” says Swanson, who reports that correctional officers would say, “‘This is insane. We’re doing what? We’re bringing in teachers? We’re providing tablets? Are you kidding?’”

Deputy Bigelow says that he initially struggled with the idea, wondering why the jail was providing free education for lawbreakers “when a lot of us have to go out and pay for our own education.”

But in the three years that have gone by since IGNITE’s launch, Bigelow and the vast majority of his coworkers have changed their minds. “I started being more comfortable with this,” he says. “It’s much more than giving people a free education. It’s about giving people hope when they have no hope.”

Witnessing the graduations helped transform Bigelow into a believer. Partly that came from watching how the families of inmates reacted. “You have people who come into the facility and can see it’s not just doom and gloom and that being in jail is not just dead time.” They see, he says, that their relatives are not idly waiting for their court date but are “actually being productive so that they are getting an advancement in their life that they weren’t going to have in the outside world.”

At the most recent graduation he attended, Bigelow remembers holding the door for the graduating inmates and shaking their hands. “It really humanizes people,” he says. “It humanizes the inmate population, and it humanizes the deputy population.”

The Special Nature of Jails

There are more than 3,000 jails in the U.S., with 85% operated by sheriffs, according to the National Sheriffs’ Association. While many individuals use the terms “jail” and “prison” interchangeably, jails are very different, with most inmates waiting for their cases to be adjudicated and, those who have been sentenced, generally serving one year or less.

While comprehensive data on jail recidivism is scarce, it is widely acknowledged to be a huge problem. Generally, only a small percentage of inmates move from jail to prison. In Genesee County, for example, only 9% of inmates end up being transferred to a prison and the rest return to their communities. But with high rates of mental illness and drug addiction and low levels of education, many end up back in jail again.

“While they’re in jail, life continues to progress and they digress,” says Swanson. “Then we expect them to go back into the world and never come back. We give them no life skills. No job skills. We give them no parenting skills. We give them nothing and we wonder why we continue [to see] this cycle.”

An Idea That’s Catching On

With the support of the National Sheriffs’ Association, IGNITE has begun to catch fire. Counties in at least seven other states have started their own IGNITE programs: Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

Garry McFadden is sheriff in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and is also leading the effort for the sheriffs’ association. McFadden’s 3,000 bed facility is far bigger than the one in Genesee County, with a capacity that hovers around 615.

The IGNITE program was a natural fit for McFadden.  In his first days in office in 2018, he began to institute multiple kinds of educational programming in his detention facility, as well as various kinds of personal life-skill instruction and attention to mental health. But the organizational structure of IGNITE, which brought a variety of educational efforts under one umbrella, seemed like a fundamentally strong approach to him, and he launched the Mecklenburg County version of IGNITE in a ribbon cutting ceremony in March 2022.

The additional structure has helped McFadden to focus on the data, recording what his facility was offering, what courses each participant was taking, and how many graduated and earn certifications.

Given his own efforts to increase educational offerings before IGNITE and his interest in data, McFadden was the ideal candidate to run the National Sheriffs’ Association outreach for the program. “We want to put this in any size sheriff’s office, whether it’s large or small. That doesn’t make a difference,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a sheriff’s office that I can go to that couldn’t produce the program. It’s not about being a Democrat or Republican, Black or white or Latino. It’s about producing better, returning citizens in your community. Who wouldn’t buy that?”

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