Sgt. Autumn Armstrong, left, works with Hawkins County jail inmate Amy Keirsey on Monday during the jail’s GED class.
ROGERSVILLE — Amber Bombailey’s criminal record will make it tough for her to get a job and get her life back on track when she eventually is released from the Hawkins County jail.
But, the 22-year-old Kingsport native is using her time on the inside to improve her chances of succeeding on the outside.
Following his election in 2010, Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson re-launched the GED program that he started in the 1990s when he was chief deputy under former Sheriff Wayne C levinger.
The program had fallen by the wayside under other recent administrations, but since Lawson’s election it has had more than 40 graduates.
Lawson told the Times-News Monday that most of the credit for inmate GED success up to this point belongs to the Hawkins County School System and former adult education director Martha Stooksbury, who retired in June.
It was just a lucky coincidence that one of Lawson’s jail officers has a teaching certificate from Kentucky.
As a result, Sgt. Autumn Armstrong has taken over the HCSO inmate GED program. Having an in-house instructor means that the program can expand and serve more inmates.
On Monday, the Hawkins County jail had 218 male inmates, 52 of whom have recently requested permission to enroll in jail GED classes. Of the jail’s 55 female inmates, there were six GED students as of Monday, but those numbers are expected to grow as well in the coming weeks.
For Bombailey, who is currently awaiting trial on charges including initiating the process to manufacture meth, promotion of manufacturing meth and possession of drug paraphernalia, said the jail’s GED program is a chance to salvage her life.
“This program is really important to me because when I get out of here I’m going to be a felon,” Bombailey told the Times-News Monday. “Having my GED will help, especially when I’m going up for parole, and just helping my life when I leave here.”
Prior to being incarcerated earlier this year, Bombailey hadn’t attempted to earn her GED. She’s now been in the program about four months and hopes to take her final test and graduate before the new year.
“Hopefully, I’ll change my life completely,” she added. “Hopefully, I can start everything new when I leave here.”
Lawson said he’s always believed the best way to help inmates get their life back on track is by fostering both educational growth and spiritual growth while they’re incarcerated.
One side of that coin is the weekly Bible study classes offered to inmates. The other is the GED program.
Both have produced success stories. For example, a male inmate had the highest English score of all Hawkins County adult education students who took the test this past year.
“You’d be surprised in the difference in a lot of inmates once they come to jail — their whole demeanor, their whole mood and attitudes change because they come off drugs or alcohol,” Lawson said. “They’re back to the normal person that they’ve grown up to be, and their families and friends know them to be. They’ve made bad choices, but some of them aren’t bad people. This helps them progress in life.”
Lawson added, “Right now we have 52 men signed up for GED, and that tells you right there, out of 273 that I have in jail today, there’s a need there to help these inmates get an education.”
This past August, 22-year-old Kayla Brooke Johnson of Church Hill was sentenced to three years on felony tampering with evidence charges stemming from her pill addiction.
She told the Times-News Monday that drugs prevented her from following through with her education on the outside.
She’s only been in the Hawkins County jail’s GED program for a few weeks, but on Monday she received news that she’d passed her GED test.
“That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t come in here,” Johnson said.
The current class of six women is almost completed, and it’s anticipated that the next women’s class will be close to 20.
The next men’s class will have 21 students.
Lawson said the plan is to keep about 20 men and 20 women enrolled at a time so that Armstrong isn’t overwhelmed and each student receives the attention he or she needs.
Currently, students are transported to Walters State Community college to take their GED test.
Around the first of next year, however, the Hawkins County jail’s GED program will be computerized. That means the GED tests can soon be taken at the jail, which will cut costs for the sheriff and speed the process for inmates.
Some students are closer than others to graduating.
Inmates are often surprised by how close they are to being ready to pass the test. Most have reached their junior or senior year of high school and just need a quick refresher course.
Armstrong noted that three students recently graduated after taking classes for three weeks.
“You get a wide range,” she said. “Some are lower. Some are higher, and all they have to do is finish the fast track (course). Once they finish the fast track they can go right in and take the GED test.”
Armstrong added, “In this type of setting you’re pretty much one-on-one with them more than in a classroom with 30 kids. Here you can talk with one student at a time and see what they need to work on.”
HCSO Chief Deputy Tony Allen was in the women’s GED class Monday as Johnson received news that she’d passed her test. He told Johnson and the other students that everyone wants to see them succeed and get their lives back on track, and this is a big step in that direction.
“The first thing you’re asked on a job application after your personal information is if you have a high school diploma,” Allen said. “Most of them in here would have to say ‘no.’ Now the 40-plus inmates who have earned their GED here can mark ‘yes.’ That might make all the difference in the world whether they’re able to get a job and help support their families and stay on the right path once they get out of jail, or whether they return to a life of drugs and crime.”