Wyoming’s prison system boasts the second best recidivism rate in the country. Twenty-five percent of offenders in the state will return to prison for a parole violation or new crime—compared to 40 percent nationally. The Wyoming Department of Corrections credits its education programs—including a mandatory G.E.D course for all inmates without a high school degree— with keeping inmates from landing back behind bars.
Zach Fuhrer dropped out of high school at age 17 and had no intention of ever setting foot in another classroom.
“It was a struggle for me,” Fuhrer says. “I didn’t want to go to school, man. I’d rather work and make money, you know what I mean?”
Now 31, Fuhrer is serving three to five years in the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington for aggravated assault.
When he got here in June, the Corrections staff told him he was required to take the Adult Basic Education—or A.B.E. class—and work toward a high school equivalency certificate—similar to a GED. Fuhrer didn’t think he could handle it.
“I really felt like I was going to struggle, and it was going to take me years to get through.”
Just a few months later, Fuhrer has already passed three of the five tests needed to get his high school equivalency certificate.
He spends a few mornings each week in class—as do about 50 of the 640 inmates at this facility.
“I never would have gone back to school, ever,” Fuhrer says. “It’s kind of like they make us here, but I can honestly give a lot of props to Mr. Newman. He’s my teacher in there. Just the way that he treats us as a human being and not a—a person that wears orange.”
Before starting his job as A.B.E. instructor when this facility opened four years ago, Mr. Jerry Numon spent years coaching high school and college athletes—and he’s clearly brought those motivational skills into the classroom.
“We talk about disciplining themselves,” says Numon. “Discipline themselves so nobody else has to discipline them. That’s what I used to tell my athletes. That’s what I believe in.”
The walls of Numon’s classroom are covered with motivational posters touting messages like ‘Challenge Yourself’ and ‘Dreams Without Actions Stay Dreams.’ What might seem trite in a third grade classroom seems to resonate with the men sitting around the table in orange jumpsuits and orthopedic shoes.
Numon says these men need to learn self-confidence as much as math and reading. Some have minimal literacy skills and very little formal education.
“Education? Well I didn’t really have one as a youngster,” says A.B.E. student Jodell Paysneo. “I grew up pretty rough in San Diego.”
Paysneo had racked up 14 felonies by age 13—and never got around to attending any high school.
“High school of hard knocks, I guess you’d say,” says Paysneo.
Paysneo says his excuse on the outside for never getting his GED was that he didn’t have time. That doesn’t play here. The 44-year-old is halfway through a two-year sentence on a drug-related charge—and he plans to make the best of it.
“If you want to come out of this place a bigger criminal, believe me you can,” Paysneo says. “There’s plenty of that there. But if you want to come out of this place a better member of society, there’s even more resources for that.”
There are about 2,200 incarcerated men and women in Wyoming’s prison system. The majority actually have a high school degree or GED before going in, but about 20 percent of the current inmate population has obtained high school equivalency certificates on the inside.
Betty Abbott is the Educations Programs Manager for the Department of Corrections. She says prison education here—and around the country—is underfunded.
“A prison system is designed, and security is always first,” Abbott says. “So, if you’re losing funding, you can’t cut security. You have to look at other things to cut. You can’t cut food. You can’t cut medical. So the things that you cut are programming and education.”
So, Abbott says she tries to do a lot with a little—and insists this is money well spent. A RAND Corporation report found that every dollar spent on prison education saves five dollars on re-incarceration costs down the line. And Abbott says this is all done with public safety in mind.
“If we prepare inmates better for release with a job—with a livable wage job, they are less likely to return,” About says. “They are also less likely to create more victims and commit more crimes.”
The A.B.E. classes are just the beginning for education. Inmate Cobey Fullerton is taking an advanced computer applications course for college credit through Eastern Wyoming College. Fullerton was recently reclassified as a minimum custody inmate—and swapped his orange jumpsuit for a red one.
“I’m red because I’m a minimum inmate,” says Fullerton. “I chose to be here.”
With his classification, 31-year-old Fullerton could have gone to one of the prison system’s work programs in another part of the state, but he wanted to stay here and finish this class—where he’s learning skills like PowerPoint and Excel.
“I could sit in my room and watch TV or sit outside and watch the grass grow,” Fullerton says. “But, to be able to use my mind and learn something, that’s something that can benefit me for my future.”
Fullerton says doing his time has been difficult, because he doesn’t agree with the state’s marijuana laws that landed him here. But education, he says, has been the silver lining.
Once he gets out next year, he plans to use the knowledge and skills learned here to find work in Colorado’s legal marijuana industry and advocate for reforms back in Wyoming.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.