Genesee County Jail’s IGNITE education program celebrates early successes

Published: Oct. 14, 2020 at 7:15 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - Inmates and educators are celebrating several major milestones in a new program happening inside the Genesee County Jail.

Sheriff Chris Swanson launched the initiative called IGNITE one month ago. It allows inmates the opportunity to get an education while serving time or awaiting trial.

In the last 36 days, 300 inmates have signed up to become students in the IGNITE program. More than 100 of them have increased their math or reading skills by one grade level while half of them already are researching post secondary opportunities.

Four students even got their GED.

The sheriff’s office received two big checks to help financially support this success.

“The whole purpose is to help these people break their cycle, so that they don’t show up here again. They do their time for making bad decisions and they get to go out and be community, productive members of our society, right?” said United Auto Workers Region 1D Director Steve Dawes.

He said it was an easy decision for his team to donate more than $5,000 to IGNITE. The money will be used to purchase a virtual reality station allowing inmates the opportunity to learn trades like welding, plumbing, electrical, carpentry and other life skills.

Once their time is served, Swanson said each inmate will be connected with an employer.

Dawes said skilled trades workers are in high demand nowadays. He’s also talking with Swanson about having retired UAW skilled trades members come in and help out.

For inmates pursuing a college education once they’re out of jail, the NFL Alumni and Sports Marketing Agency presented a check for a scholarship today. Braylon Edwards and Devin Gardner were on hand for the big presentation.

“Just because you make a mistake, the coach doesn’t pull you out right away. Right? So you get a second chance -- and a lot of times, third and fourth chances,” said Sean Jordan of the sports marketing agency. “So, as long as we’re able to give people an opportunity to better themselves and have a different path, then that’s what the education is all about. So, we stand by that and we’re committed to be a part of it ongoing.”

Michael Brown Sr. was at the jail for Wednesday’s celebration. He’s the father of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr., who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., six years ago.

Andre Norman, a Boston-based activist who spent over a decade in prison, invited Brown to Genesee County on Wednesday and both men got a firsthand look at the IGNITE program.

“I see people who want to do better," Norman said. "They’re in an incarcerated situation, they’re locked up, they’ve done wrong. The world is looking at them as evil people. But even though at the end of the day they’re people and they want to do better, sometimes they just don’t know how to do better. And that’s what this is about, helping them learn to do better.”

He didn’t have an opportunity to better himself during his 14 years in prison with an educational program like IGNITE. Norman said his life would have been drastically different if he was able to further his education behind bars.

As the founder of the Academy for Hope, Norman works with a number of like-minded people pushing for criminal justice and police reform, including Brown.

Brown said he struggled quite a bit after his son’s death before he became what’s called a certified forgiveness coach so he can help people through the pain of losing a loved one. He said it’s the best way to honor his son’s legacy.

Brown said forgiveness is one of the first steps for inmates as they work to better themselves through the IGNITE program.

“It definitely works on them," he said. "Once they can forgive what they have done or whatever has happened in their life, they can move forward. It’s a train of thought. We have to get back to that train of thought of getting ourselves back to whee we were before certain things had happened in our life.”

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