Jail inmate marks GED milestone

Kathryn Hamman, left, adult education instructor from Lord Fairfax Community College, sits beside Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail inmate Joseph Michael, 38, of Mount Jackson. Michael is the first inmate at the facility to earn a GED. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Jails are unlikely places for celebrations such as the one recently held for Joseph Michael.

In a windowless room with bare walls and desktop computers, Michael received a certificate making him the first inmate at Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail to earn a General Education Degree, a high school equivalency credential he hopes will one day translate into a meaningful job in the outside world.

Michael and his teacher, Kathryn Hamman of Lord Fairfax Community College, beamed with pride over an achievement that is harder to attain than many people might think.

“I couldn’t have more wanted another person to get their GED first,” Hamman said of Michael.

Michael’s improbable path toward the GED began with his arrest in March 2015 for running a methamphetamine laboratory in Mount Jackson. By the time he was sentenced in Shenandoah County Circuit Court on 10 counts of manufacturing meth, Michael was already several months into his GED coursework.

Joseph Michael

Michael said he hopes to eventually get a bachelor’s degree, a goal that will have to wait until he is transferred to a facility in the state prison system that offers college coursework.

“It feels pretty good,” Michael said of earning the GED. “I wanted to better myself and, to be honest, I’d like to try to get a bachelor’s degree in theology and, if the good Lord is calling me, to be a minister.

“I’d like to be a counselor to young people and prevent them from going down the road I went down.”

For now, he is still taking satisfaction from what he has accomplished. His last time in a classroom before his arrest was as a ninth-grader at Stonewall Jackson High School.

“I’m going to mail my diploma to my son,” Michael said. “He’s excited.”

Kathryn Hamman, left, adult education instructor from Lord Fairfax Community College, speaks with Jail inmate Joseph Michael, 38, of Mount Jackson. Hamman teaches inmates at the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail near Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

Michael passed all the GED tests – language arts, social studies, science and mathematics – on the first try. Students can take each one several times within a year if need be.

“I love watching them grow,” Hamman said of the students in her classes, two of them for men and one for women. “I love watching them get excited over what they do. I love watching them go, ‘Ah, I get it it,’ for the first time.”

Sharon Hetland, Regional Adult Education Specialist with Lord Fairfax Community College, said the six or seven hours required to take all the tests makes it impractical for students to take them all at once.

Language arts, for example, takes about 2 ½ hours.

“The reading and writing is very rigorous,” Hetland said. “It is evidence-based writing, so they have to be able to cite sources and give reasons for their opinions.”

Once scorned by many colleges and employers, GED coursework has been toughened considerably in recent years, so much so that even some highly educated test takers struggle with it. A writer for the Daily Beast website, who holds a master’s degree from Columbia University and scored a 1370 on the SAT, tried a sample GED test online. He flunked the language arts section of the test and recorded what he described as “borderline” scores in math and science.

Test scores on the GED plunged after the testing service beefed up its questions to bring them into line with standards designed to reflect the expectations of employers and colleges.

GED recipients fell from 540,535 in 2013 to 86,500 after the new test was instituted in 2014. In response, the testing service announced in January that it was lowering the score for a passing grade from 150 to 145 in most states, including Virginia.

Teaching the GED in a jail requires security measures not usually seen in other classrooms. Unlike conventional plastic pens, the ones given to students at RSW come with a thin, flexible, rubbery stem designed to make it harder to use as a weapon or tool for damaging property. Hamman has to count everything she takes into the classroom and document all items in her possession when she leaves.

Still, Hamman appreciates the advantages at RSW that were unavailable when she was teaching at the former jail in downtown Front Royal. Working conditions are better with a computer-based interactive white board, improved cleanliness and an office.

“It’s just a completely different world here for me,” Hamman said. “It’s so much more professional.”

The GED program at RSW is paid for through a combination of a grant and money collected from inmates when they buy an item in the jail’s commissary. Superintendent William Wilson said inmates without a high school diploma have an extra incentive to enroll in GED classes when they are supported with commissary money.

“The proceeds from that goes to help pay for the program, so actually the inmates are paying for this program,” Wilson said. “That’s why we encourage them to come and take part in it.”

Michael, who passed all his GED tests on the first try, will have a lot of time to complete his bachelor’s degree when he transfers to a state prison. He still has 7 ½ years to go before his release.

“I just went down a road I shouldn’t have gone,” Michael said of his past. “But here I am. I’ve got my GED to show for it now.

“I’m going to keep going forward, and I’m not going to look back.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com