The Continuing Fall of the Prison Population in Georgia – A Brief Look at One Charter School’s Effort to Keep the Trend Going

Written by: Jennifer Dorminey Herzog, Esq.

Between 1990 and 2011, the Georgia adult prison population more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates.[i]   Georgia’s incarceration rate in 2011 – 1 in 70 adults behind bars – was the fourth highest in the nation.  Meanwhile, the state’s recidivism rate hovered at roughly 30% for a decade.[ii]   To attempt to address the problem, the legislature created the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform (initially known as the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians). The Council was directed to investigate the dynamics driving prison growth and costs and recommend improvements.  As the Council enters its sixth year of work, there is a continuing decline of Georgia’s prison population, which stood at 51,822 at the end of 2015.[iii]

About 70 percent of Georgia’s inmates do not have a high school diploma, and many of those released from prison have difficulty locating work, contributing to the cycle of recidivism.[iv]  Inmates in Georgia prisons have long been eligible to take GED coursework and vocational training programs.  However, there is a recent push that now allows inmates the chance to earn a full-fledged high school diploma from behind bars – and one group providing that opportunity in Georgia is Foothills Education Charter High School.[v]  Foothills has 5 locations across the North-Middle Georgia region, offering a full range of high school courses in a convenient, flexible, self-paced format.  All courses are mastery-based, which means a student cannot fail a course.  There are no deadlines, so the student can take as much or as little time as necessary to successfully complete the coursework. To better meet the different learning styles of students, Foothills offers a variety of course formats including textbook and web-based instruction.[vi]

Sherrie Gibney-Sherman, Ed.D., Superintendent of Foothills, advises that the program has been a great success this past year in correctional institutions and is the most rewarding thing she has done in her 40 year career.  One example of this success is Ladronda’s story, which can be read here. (Ladronda is an inmate at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, GA, where Foothills is one academic intervention offered to female state prisoners wishing to improve their lives through education.)[vii]   Burruss Correctional Training Center’s graduation is June 23, 2016 and Lee Arrendale State Prison’s is June 30, 2016 – Dr. Gibney-Sherman expects approximately 20 students to graduate at each ceremony.

Only a handful of states have launched charter schools in state prisons, while some studies show they are among the most effective ways to reduce recidivism, they also require a long-term financial and political commitment.[viii]  Dr. Gibney-Sherman only wishes they could help more – there is a waiting list of approximately 350 students who want to further their education through Foothills.[ix]

[i] Report of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, February 2016

[ii] Id. at 3.

[iii] Id. at 3-4.

[iv] http://www.myajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/georgia-opens-first-prison-charter-school/nnhJN/

[v] Id.

[vi]

[vii]  The Foothills Review, Foothills Education Charter High School, April 2016 Newsletter

[viii] http://www.myajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/georgia-opens-first-prison-charter-school/nnhJN/

[ix] For more info on Foothills, see: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8RcMdIBN5psWFZBVTZOZVNGUGc/view?pref=2&pli=1