Photos by Robert Beeland (C’18)
By Robert Beeland
“Working in Grundy County has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Graff Wilson (C’18), whose role as a Bonner Leader has allowed him to serve in an important role at the Grundy County Jail. The Bonner program at Sewanee, which oversees leaders like Wilson and a multitude of local sites where they serve, began working with the Grundy County Sheriff’s to assist inmates at the Grundy County Jail in developing the skills necessary to pass the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET), similar to the General Education Development (GED) test.
With assistance from VISTA site leader Dana Rasch, who worked to create the partnership between Sewanee and the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office, Wilson, Peter Barr (C’20), and David Podvia (C’20) visit the Grundy County Jail once or twice a week and work one-on-one with inmates. Rasch explains, “The vision [with the program] is to let anybody who’s staying here more than just a couple of months be in this program, if they have that need, and we’d have the ability to really get them enough instruction and enough assistance to really try and get them that degree.”
In an interview with The Sewanee Purple, Grundy County Sheriff Clint Shrum explained that the program established an unprecedented capacity for education within the jail. “I don’t know if there was a demand for it, but what I saw was a need for it. And the reason there wasn’t a demand for it was because people didn’t know they could get it… by statute, the state has to offer to people who are incarcerated the ability to obtain their high school education or a GED, but it was just never pursued here.” Since the program’s implementation this year, already two inmates—TJ James and Terry Norman—have taken and passed the HiSET test.
“At first I just did it to get out of going [to the state penitentiary] and to get out of the jailhouse. But I’ve seen a brighter side of things,” explains James. For him, the program was a reprieve from the mundanities of his day-to-day life at the jail. In just a few months, he was ready to take the HiSET. “The test was from about 7 o’clock in the morning to about 4:30 p.m.—it was long, tiring, boring, but I’m glad I did it. I’m proud of myself.”
Rasch remarked that James “worked really hard to get the degree, to get the diploma, and it just changed a lot of stuff for him… he did that in three months, worked so hard to do it, and the program allowed him to do it. He’d probably be in the state pen without it.”
Norman, who passed the HiSET in July, hopes to use his diploma to work on Sewanee’s campus. “I’d like to work at [Sewanee], maybe be a chef or work in the kitchen down there, I think it’d be a good opportunity.”
“I really appreciate the volunteers that come out here and help the other guys get through this, you know, and they really encourage the guys and help them, and they really take time out of their days and I really appreciate that. So, I think it’s a great program.” Receiving his diploma has also, Norman believes, made his case for parole much stronger—he will eligible for parole next May.
Wilson’s interest in this program stems from his own history with a community similar to many of those surrounding Sewanee. “I grew up in a place very similar to Grundy County, so working in the high school as well has been particularly important and special to me. Grundy County is full of wonderful people and wonderful opportunities, but it suffers from problems like any other place.”
For Wilson, whose passions for teaching and service initially led him to the Bonner program, this work allows him to further his involvement with Bonner and to continue to develop the skills which make him a valuable leader. For these reasons, it would be a severe understatement to say that Wilson enjoys his work.
“These men teach me something new every week… I’m incredibly lucky to work with such a great team and to have the opportunity to engage with members of Grundy County multiple times a week,” he remarks.
Having an effective education program in the jail can help alleviate some of the difficulties that arise for inmates following their release. Shrum explains: “We’re labeled as the poorest county in the state, and one of the reasons is because of lack of jobs. People aren’t going to work, and one of the reasons they’re not going to work is because they don’t have an education—they want to make a salary on a fifth or sixth grade education, it’s just not working that way… So what we need to do is at least get them a high school education—that’s something nobody can take away from them.”
Another important objective of the program, however, is to establish structure for those who, after obtaining their diploma, are released. In the county, it can be difficult for former inmates not only to find jobs, but also to find environments that foster structure and make working possible. Sheriff Shrum notes these regularly precarious circumstances: “Terry Norman can do anything I need him to, TJ James can do anything. They’ve still got some time left, but I don’t want them, when they get out, to step out the jail and have no structure. That’s what happens to most people, that’s why people repeat offend, that’s why the recidivism rate continues to go up.”
For Sheriff Shrum, however, establishing that structure is much easier said than done. He explains: “If something as far as infrastructure doesn’t change in Grundy County in the near future, this program will reach its peak. We can only do so much with the resources that we’ve got available… we’re starting to see the fruits of that effort. But at some point, this county is going to have to grow, or we’re going to have trouble.”
Some of that infrastructure is already beginning to change. The newly built Grundy County Jail will house a greater number of inmates more comfortably and will be able to provide inmates with specific spaces for studying. “Hopefully, in a year, [the program] is even more robust… One of the challenges we have now is the facility that we’re in. It’s nearly impossible to study on your own because of the noise and all—the facility just isn’t conducive to studying. So once they’re over here, there’ll be more opportunity for them to study on their own… Research shows over and over—and over and over that educational programs in prisons and in jails have a great impact on recidivism,” explains Rasch.
On a broader scale, the service of Wilson and other Bonner leaders creates an important synergy between Sewanee and many local communities. Wilson notes, “While workers within Grundy County have previously been helping inmates with their high school equivalency tests, this is the first opportunity that I know of for Sewanee to engage with and actively help with the program.” Through the course of this academic year, Wilson and other Bonner leaders will continue to serve the community here in Sewanee and beyond the gates.
This service from the Bonner leaders does not go unseen, either. Norman is especially struck by the generosity of those who have come and worked at the jail: “What I enjoy the most about it is seeing people come out and give back and volunteer their time to people—especially in jail—you know, people lose a lot of hope in jail, but when they come out and take time with you, it gives people hope. People taking time out of their lives and dedicating a part of it to inmates, I think it’s just a precious thing to me.”