Nevada County jail time can offer ‘second chances’ |

Nevada County jail time can offer ‘second chances’

Valerie Dembrosky and Julie Coffin are teachers at Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada City.
John Hart/ | The Union

Under the circumstances, Joe Jones could be one of the best prepared men for fatherhood in Nevada County.

With his new baby — his second — born this month, Jones (not his real name), became one of the first Nevada County jail inmates to pass the new HiSET high school equivalency exam, just before he was released from the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility a week or so prior to the newborn’s arrival.

For a just-released jail inmate seeking a fresh start and welcoming a new family member, passing the exam was the key to his future, said Jones’ teacher, Julie Coffin.

“He was super-motivated,” Coffin said. “He really wanted to finish the test, get out and be done (with the past).”

“So much about their lives when they come to jail and are incarcerated is about their past and this horrible mistake they made that now rules their lives. But when they come to the classroom, it’s only about their futures.”Julie Coffinteacher at Wayne Brown Correctional Facility

For Jones, 40, who dropped out of high school his senior year and who has been working as a contractor since, passing the HiSET will allow him, finally, to get a contractor’s license. The new high school equivalency certificate will also allow him to apply for financial aid to attend Sierra College, and later apply for the electrical engineering program at Sacramento State.

“The doors are opening up for me,” Jones said, adding that his relationship with his wife has also improved. “By taking responsibility for my past bad decisions and then taking the exam, it has allowed us a fresh start and a new beginning — especially with the baby coming.”

HiSET, a series of five subject-specific pencil-and-paper multiple choice tests of two hours each, is a new option for high school equivalency instead of the 2014 GED (General Education Diploma), which is computer-based. Inmates at Wayne Brown cannot do the 2014 GED because they do not have access to the Internet, although they do use computers in their classrooms inside the jail, located next to the county’s Rood administration building in Nevada City, Coffin said.

“Both the new (2014) GED and the HiSET are evolving to incorporate Common Core,” said Valerie Dembrowsky, another teacher at Wayne Brown. “They are getting more rigorous than in the olden days.”

Coffin, of Nevada City, and Dembrowsky, of Grass Valley, are employees of Nevada Union Joint High School District even though they work inside a Nevada County-run facility. Although their adult education program was in limbo as recently as a month ago, this week they said they are “optimistic” that Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2015-16 budget will continue financing adult education in the state.

They acknowledge there is no guarantee, and the part-time teachers admit they have had the verbal equivalent of “pink slip” warnings that they would get if they were full-time. But newest reports on the governor’s proposed budget show adult education — including training for HiSET, 2014 GED, high school diplomas and post-secondary certificate courses — will remain intact for at least one more year.

“The good news is we’ll stay within the high school district for another year,” Dembrowsky said. “Then after that, maybe we would be under the AB 86 consortium (of local adult education stakeholders).”

Despite the changes in testing, the shake-up around financing and the general uncertainty about adult education, and the jail education program in particular, Coffin and Dembrowsky said they love their jobs — and the adult offenders seem to appreciate the opportunities to learn while serving their time.

“It’s all about second chances,” Dembrowsky said. The teachers say attendance at class is optional, meaning that the inmates who attend are there because they want to be there.

“So much about their lives when they come to jail and are incarcerated is about their past and this horrible mistake they made that now rules their lives,” Coffin said. “But when they come to the classroom, it’s only about their futures.

“They say, ‘when I leave here, if I’ll have my GED or diploma, I definitely will have accomplished something,’” she said. “They’re thinking about a job, setting an example for their kids, even going on to college.”

With the new HiSET, inmates may begin the process in jail and finish it on the outside. The subjects include math, social studies, reading, writing and science.

“We had one student do zero to 200 credits in almost two years,” Dembrowsky said.

“He got his high school diploma,” she said. “He would write letters to his son about the advanced algebra he was studying, encouraging his son to stay with it.”

She added that this year Wayne Brown will “graduate” two inmates who have earned high school diplomas — a much more rigorous course of study than the HiSET or GED high school equivalency exams.

About 40 to 45 inmates — including federal and state prisoners as well as local offenders — out of the approximate total 225-inmate jail population are involved in the education program. Classes are given in special rooms that are part of the locked “pods” that also include the sleeping rooms and day rooms.

Wayne Brown also has an English as a Second Language teacher, so non-English-speaking offenders may learn English while in jail, and then begin studies for high school equivalency exams.

“We had two federal inmates, brothers, who were here for five years,” Dombrowsky said. “Neither spoke English, but by the time they left, both learned English, and both passed the GED in English.”

The chance to feed inmates’ minds and stimulate previously buried curiosity appears to quell any threats of violence in the classrooms, the teachers said. Coffin, who has been at Wayne Brown for nine years, said she has only had two incidents when there was some problem with an offender who became upset and who had to be removed.

“Just like they can choose to be there, we can choose not to call them back,” Coffin said.

On Wednesday, during a “free write” session, both teachers asked their students to put down their thoughts on their education at Wayne Brown. Almost two dozen did so.

“The most important thing is that I’m working toward getting my General Education Diploma,” said one person. “Some of the other wonderful benefits are that it is a much more positive environment than the day room.

“It challenges my mind, as I am brushing up on my math and writing skills,” the person said. “I am certain that it will likely enable me to get a better job, as well as a higher paying job, when I’m back out in the normal world.”

For Jones, meanwhile, who was incarcerated for 2 1/2 months on a misdemeanor drug charge, his dedication helped to motivate others to also pursue their high school equivalency.

“There are good people in the world,” Jones said. “Just because someone makes some bad decisions, doesn’t mean they’re not a good person.”

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email or call 530-477-4239.

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