WEST CHESTER, PA — Inmates at Chester County Prison serve sentences of less than two years on average, so that means they will be back in their communities, and one way shown to help prevent their return to incarceration is getting a GED.
Chester County’s GED program has been in place a long time, presently functioning virtually through Delaware County Community College. Outside workers stopped coming in last year as the pandemic kept everyone in place, and numbers of participants in the prison’s GED program fell.
Chester County President Judge John L. Hall, who serves on the prison board, suggested to the board several months ago that they find ways to incentivize the program so more inmates will have a high school graduation equivalency diploma (GED) upon release.
Warden Ron Phillips in the meeting introduced a list of incentives to bring participants into the GED program. The board unanimously approved the list.
Phillips reported the daily average number of incarcerated persons in the county prison fell 20 percent over the last year; from 595 at this time last year to 748 in the most recent count.
Deputy Warden of Treatment George Roberts explained the incentives to get inmates back into the GED program and underscored the importance of education as a way to help inmates stay out of prison after they are released. “The people in a county facility like ours are people who are coming back into the community. They are here for under two years and education — having at least a high school diploma — can improve their chances of staying out, Roberts said.
Roberts explained that during the COVID-19 lockdown, outside parties were not coming into Chester County Prison, and that included those working in adult education. During COVID, participation in the GED program dropped.
There have been 92 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at Chester County Prison and 90 are reported recovered. Prison employees have reported 46 COVID-19 cases and of those 43 were recovered as of March 22. Court hearings have been held by video in 37 percent more cases over the pandemic year, Phillips reported to the board.
The program to help inmates get their GED while incarcerated is not new at Chester County Prison but it needed a boost after a year of COVID-19 impacts. The incentives to join the GED program include preference for institutional employment. Roberts said there is a waiting list, and getting in the GED program will give an advantage to those on the wait list for prison jobs.
Being in the program also can get inmates “earn time” toward their accounted good behavior when their release date comes up for review. Roberts explained there are many ways inmates may add to their “earn time.” Just being at the prison, following all the rules without incident, will earn them some reduction in their sentence, he said.
There’s a formula for calculating earn time, and the various incentives can knock almost two and a half months off an average inmate’s sentence, he said.
The virtual Delaware County Community College GED class prepares participants to take the exam for high school graduation equivalency. For those released and seeking jobs after serving a sentence, the GED is a basic credential for employment.
Juveniles and those under 21 can earn high school diplomas through the county’s Intermediate Unit.
Other incentives approved in the March 25 meeting include book privileges, gift bags at the prison commissary, and no-charge family phone contact time, Roberts said.
The prison has in the works the use of tablets that will allow video visits, and let inmates to check email and have other allowed digital activities. When the tablet program is in place, Roberts explained, some of those privileges will be incentivized.
Hall thanked the warden for coming up with a good list of incentives that “don’t increase any cost significantly.”
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