Mariah Flores, dressed in a cobalt blue graduation gown and cap, beams with the pride of a woman who has just received her GED.
This is not just a significant day for her. It’s a significant day for the La Plata County Jail, where she is finishing up serving her sentence. Flores is the first female inmate to receive her GED as part of an educational program the detention center has been running for the last 15 years with the Durango Adult Education Center.
“I did it!” Flores exclaimed amid the claps and cheers of her fellow inmates, all eager to participate in the graduation ceremony taking place in their cell block, which includes soda and chocolate cake and time to socialize with staff members.
Many of the inmates seem as excited as Flores to witness her accomplishment, especially fellow inmate Angelia Liggens, who helped tutor Flores for a month and a half in preparation for her final exams.
“I helped her with the algebra and geometry stuff,” Liggens said, as another inmate standing beside her pats her warmly on the shoulder.
Many have been encouraged by Flores’ success and are looking into completing their own GEDs, said Flores’ teacher, Mary Mullens. During the ceremony, Mullens stands next to Flores, smiling at her student with pride. Mullens has been working the last few months to help Flores complete her schooling.
“We work with these inmates for about 45 minutes a week, but I would love to be able to spend at least an hour with them every day,” Mullens said. “They’re great students.”
“We don’t know what they’re in for,” said Cyd Franken, the lead GED teacher at the detention center, “and we don’t want to know. It’s not important. I’m just there to help them in anyway I can.”
“They’re some of the best students,” said Libby Baumchen, who overseas the adult education programs in Durango and Cortez. “Highly motivated. Any inmate who wants a GED, man or woman, is allowed to work toward one with us, no matter what cell block they’re in. We usually teach between one to five inmates per cell block, and we’ve never had an issue.”
Mullens, Franken and Baumchen are educators with the Durango Adult Education Center, which has been helping adults finish their GEDs and pursue higher education since 1987. For several years, the education center has been working with La Plata County Jail to help inmates work toward finishing their secondary schooling and prepare for a career path once they serve their time. If inmates are unable to finish their GED before their sentence is up, they can come to the education center and complete their schooling.
“We also provide them with college and career counseling,” Mullens said. “We help them get ready for their new careers. If they need new shoes for their jobs, we get them some. Whatever they need. When they’re released, they’re just sent out the door back into the world. We do what we can to prepare them for what’s next.”
Just as happy to witness Flores receive her GED is the La Plata County Jail staff, including the center’s captain, Ed Aber.
“Since we’ve been running this (program), we’ve had 30 graduates,” he said, “and only one of them has come back to serve more time. It’s an effective program.”
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 2.1 million people are incarcerated, and a Bureau of Justice Special Report found that 41% of inmates do not hold a high school diploma. Of those incarcerated, 60.4% were rearrested and sent back to prison, while the recidivism rate for inmates with a GED or postsecondary education is only 19.1%. Providing educational programs for those incarcerated reduces recidivism in American prison populations, according to a RAND Corp. report, which found that participants in education programs were 43% less likely to return to prison.
At the end of Friday’s ceremony, Aber extends his hand to Flores, who shakes it with a smile.
“I know I won’t see you back here again,” he tells her with a grin.
Flores grins back, silently agreeing. She has too many plans now, including going to cosmetology school, and eventually, working toward a degree in the culinary arts.
What she is certain of is that she is holding her diploma in one hand, she is less than a week from finishing her 60-day sentence and she is never going back.