Louisiana inmates offered GED program to improve their futures

A pair of inmates in the Iberville Parish Jail are thrilled about not only bettering themselves, but their futures as well.

Justin Voisin and Dexter Young are getting a shot at education with the state’s HI-SET program, formerly known as the GED program.

In 2014, the Louisiana Department of Corrections, or DOC, launched the program specifically for inmates. In July 2021, Sheriff Brett Stassi launched the HI-SET program at the Iberville Parish Jail.

The DOC has the HI-SET program in 37 different facilities across the state. The number includes all state prisons, 27 local jails and some re-entry centers. Since the program started, more than 1,600 inmates have successfully earned their GEDs.

“I went to prison early,” Voisin said. “I got 17 years behind bars and I never got an education once and I believe this is my last opportunity to get an education. Them bringing it here is really going to help me a lot.”

Stassi said at least 75% of the inmates under 40 years old don’t have a GED. He said the HI-SET program in the jail is a good way to get more inmates closer to a high school diploma or equivalent.

“Education is really important as far as deterring crime,” said Iberville Jail Warden Joseph Edwards. “I would assume if you have the education, you would be smart enough not to do a particular thing knowing what the outcome will be.”

The Iberville Parish Jail is a pre-trial jail, which houses inmates until they make bond. If the inmates don’t make bond, they stay until a hearing or trial. The jail can house up to 125 inmates. Some prisoners are in the jail for a few days and others like Voisin, are in for months. He is serving six months for violating a protective order.

Voisin said at this point, he’s able to reflect on his life and how things could’ve been different had he stayed in school.

“I would have made a better life for myself,” he said. “I wouldn’t have made dumb choices. It just comes to a point that you just gotta do what you gotta do. By me having an education, I could have gone to college. I wasn’t dumb. I was raised good. I just chose to do what I wanted to do and that’s not how life goes.”

Young is facing a second-degree murder charge. He doesn’t know how long or where he’s going until after trial. In the meantime, he’s working on educating himself.

“It’s going well right now,” he said. “I’m at the top of my class. I’m on the verge of finishing. I left school after I completed the 8th grade. As I entered high school, I pretty much started messing up and going down a path that just got me out of school.”

Officials said inmates have the option of enrolling in the GED program. The duration of the program varies depending on prior level of education and how quickly each student learns the information.

Gail Edwards, a retired jr. high teacher and administrator with nearly 34 years of experience is teaching the HI-SET program. She said the knowledge taught goes beyond what’s in the books.

“It’s not about what you do in here with us, we’re about trying to better you,” she said. “We’re not in here to judge you for why you’re here because that’s not our job. Our job is to help you better yourself. We don’t just educate them, we counsel them, too.”

Inmates who are still in jail after earning their GED learn how to make a resume and apply for jobs. The goal is to improve the inmates’ lives starting with education while setting them up with a way to earn money once they leave jail.

“We don’t want this to be their life-ending deal,” Stassi said. “We want to give them a chance when they get back on the street to be a tax-paying citizen of this parish.”

Stassi said seven inmates, including Young, have earned their GEDs while jailed in Iberville Parish since launching the program.

“No matter what you’re going through, you can still do something with yourself,” Young said. “You don’t have to keep doing the wrong thing. You can always change. It’s never too late.”

“It’s a sense of even though we’re behind these walls, we can better our future and better ourselves,” Voisin said.

Voisin has served his time and was released from jail. He didn’t stay in jail long enough to complete the GED program but he told the warden he plans to finish it. Young remains incarcerated awaiting trial.

Meanwhile, DOC has already budgeted for the 22-23 fiscal year to continue expanding the HI-SET program into additional facilities across the state.

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