At 19, Alex May knew she was hanging out with the wrong people.
Looking back, she admits that she didn't do enough to change the bad habits she held—the habits that eventually landed her in the Duval County correctional system.
Beginning in March 2014, May was in-and-out of the county jail over the next 20 months. The Jacksonville, Florida, native faced drug-related and other charges, as well as repeated violations of her probation. It wasn’t until October 2015 that May found the program she credits with turning her life around.
After May once again found herself in the Pre-Trial Detention Center, she considered taking part in one of the corrections programs offered. At first it was just a chance for her to spend time outside of her cell. But within the programs offered, one stood out: a GED and life skills course.
The Richard A. McKissick Memorial DAWN (Developing Adults with Necessary Skills) Program is a reentry program that prepares students to take the GED, and provides them with transitional counseling classes and life skills training, such as support in finding a job. DAWN serves students who are 18 years of age or older and do not yet have a diploma.
May had completed much of her senior year of high school, but didn’t graduate. Motivated to finish her education, she decided to enroll in the program. Eight months after her first class, May has not only earned her GED, but she is working two jobs at area restaurants and plans to enroll in college this fall.
For May, now 21, the lessons taught in the DAWN classes may not have been what she wanted to hear at the time, but she said it’s what she “needed to hear.”
“If I never went through the DAWN Program, I wouldn’t have been able to get away from that dorm, away from all that [drugs and fights],” she said. “It’s not just fun and games, you’re in jail. It’s supposed to be a life changing thing, but for a lot of people, it’s not.”
18 Years of Supporting the Community
Since its founding in 1998, the DAWN Program has helped more than 150 men and women earn a GED. Originally just offered to men, the female component of the program was added in 2010.
Shelletta Baker, a former high school and college mathematics teacher, began working with females in the DAWN program a little less than a year ago.
In each of her classes, students cover language arts, math, science, and social studies content. But before they begin each session, Baker has them recite a motivational quote that she developed when she first started with DAWN:
“Today, I’m excited to participate in the enhancement of my development, while earning the benefit of an education. I am intelligent, I am focused, and I am capable. Today, and every day, I am eager to learn.”
For Baker, many of her students see the DAWN Program as one of their final opportunities and not only inspire each other to remain committed to their schoolwork, but inspire Baker as well.
“They come into class every single day with a smile and help me to be better at what I do,” Baker said. “They make me want to work harder.”
Students who elect to participate in the DAWN Program attend a total of four classes each week, two 2-hour long courses to study for the GED and two 2-hour long classes on developing life skills. The classes are structured just like a high school or college course with students needing to complete homework outside of class. Classes include anywhere from 6 to 15 students and many of these students face drug-related charges or a violation of probation.
Depending upon the level at which a student enters - some have started at only a fifth-grade level - Baker said it typically takes between four and six months for them to be prepared to take the GED.
The DAWN Program was founded through funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. The JAG program, named after Officer Edward R. Byrne, is the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions. It provides funding to support law enforcement, corrections, drug treatment, crime prevention, among other issues. Over the past five years, DAWN has received more than $787,000 in JAG funds to support its programming.
Richard McKissick, a Jacksonville native who worked with justice involved youth to take advantage of their second chances for more than 40 years was instrumental in the program’s founding and the program now bears his name. McKissick, 90, died in January.
The Impact of Reentry Programs
Terry Powell’s classroom is located on the fourth floor of the Pre-Trial Detention Center. Powell’s previous classroom was in the basement, but his new space has an important feature that the previous room lacked: a window.
Overlooking the City of Jacksonville, the window symbolizes what his students are working toward.
“They have a chance to see the city, see not only what they’re missing, but what they have to look forward to,” said Powell, a GED instructor in the male component of the program and the program’s senior staff member.
Across the country, more than 600,000 people return to their communities every year after serving time in federal and state prisons. Research shows that economic opportunity, education, strong family bonds and civic engagement are critical for a successful return from prison.
Thus, successful reentries reduce recidivism, improve the safety of neighborhoods and provide economic benefits for communities and the country. But for many, a criminal record restricts access to jobs, housing, education, public benefits, and civic participation.
To address this challenge, the Department of Justice released the Roadmap to Reentry, a set of evidence-based principles that are guiding federal efforts to improve the correctional practices and programs that govern the lives of those who will reenter society after incarceration.
Principle II of the report states: “While incarcerated, each inmate should be provided education, employment training, life skills, substance abuse, mental health, and other programs that target their criminogenic needs and maximize their likelihood of success upon release.”
Statistics on the DAWN Program are clear on how successful the program is. The recidivism rate for those completing the program is less than 10 percent, compared to a rate of more than 23 percent for the comparable population.
Many of Powell’s students not only go on to earn their GED, but remain in touch with him after they leave the facility and remain out of jail.
“That opportunity, that ability to impact a man for his personal betterment, as well as everyone who is connected with him, I find it invaluable as it pertains to reentry,” Powell said.
The DAWN Program begins with the mindset of a second chance, and as Powell points out, many participants are taking advantage of that second chance offered through reentry.
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