Hopkins County jail marked two milestones this week – success in two of the programs offered to inmates.
This week, two of the women enrolled in the GED program at the jail passed their tests to earn their certificates. Two trustees also found their smiles, thanks to the new teeth they received, as part of a dental program as well.
Mary Wooten and Keyra Dunham are the first who attended the class at Hopkins County jail to earn their GEDs. In the past, classes were offered, but inmates weren’t able to take the test required to attain the GED while in jail.
“We’ve had that we know about 11 graduate TDC after they left here, but they are the first two straight out of the jail. I’m guessing at least half of my students never went to TDC. Life happens. That’s why they don’t go back to school and pursue other opportunities that I tell them about. They just get busy trying to get a job, have place to live and all this stuff. It’s just life — very hard. So, I was blown away that Mr. [Kenneth] Dean came in and said he and the sheriff wanted to have graduates from the jail. I told him I’ve got two girls ready, right now,” said Dr. Millie Nylan, who taught GED in the prison system for 12 years before home schooling her granddaughter.
Nylan said she approached the sheriff about teaching a GED program at the county jail. She’s been donating her time a few days each week since June 2017.
Dunham said she quit school in 11th grade and was excited to have the chance to attain her GED. She was was arrested July 2, 2019 and was released Dec. 21, but has faithfully returned to the jail to attend classes in readiness for the test.
“As soon as I got out of school I went through GED classes and still never went and took the test, so the likeliness of me getting it accomplished if I wasn’t in here were it wouldn’t have happened. I’m really excited I got that chance,” Dunham said.
While she was excited about the personal opportunity, Dunham said she wants others to continue to have the opportunity to work toward a GED. She said she didn’t want to let the staff and other inmates at the jail down. She hopes that seeing her attain a GED will show other inmates that it’s possible. She said having a GED should open up more job opportunities for her and a chance for school if she wants to go back. She’s still looking for a job, but is staying at her dad’s, something that wouldn’t have happened before she was jailed. She said she isn’t sure what her dream job would be, but feels blessed to have had the opportunity to succeed.
“We are blessed to have the GED here. Mrs. Nylan is an amazing teacher,” Dunham said of Dr. Millie Nylan who teaches the GED class at the jail.
Wooten entered Hopkins County jail on April 11 and entered the class on the 16th. She said her formal education only took her through the ninth grade, and getting her GED has been on her to-do list since she was 16, but she never got around to it.
“God blessed me with the opportunity and the perfect people, and the right places at the right time to be able to achieve that,” Wooten said.
She says she has faithfully attended the class, where she not only was prepared to take the GED, but also had received important life lessons.
“Ms. Nylan has been a blessing in my life in everything that she taught me, she’s taught me things I didn’t need for the GED but other things I’m very grateful for. She’s taught me so many things I’m very grateful for and prepared me for the GED,” Wooten said.
Wooten said Nylan also teaches about God, which allowed her to begin believing in herself. The opportunity to not just take the GED class, but also test and attain it have shown her that with Him the impossible is possible.
“We get a lot of spirituality and God, and all the knowledge that they have, they pour into us, willingly. Like they said, Mrs. Nylan isn’t getting paid for this. She pours all of her knowledge into us, not just about academics education. It’s everything that she knows. It’s the basic things for life, to help us to know our worth and our worth in Christ. It’s helped us. And when it’s consistent like that it’s when it takes, the consistency of that,” Wooten said. “They offer so many opportunities. We just have to be open to receive those and take advantage of it. We have a better support system.”
Wooten said she feels stronger and more confident now that she has a GED. She hopes to one day go to college. The next step for her will be a career assessment, an evaluation of what she’d be best at, so she can consider her options, upon release from custody.
The lessons and love shown to her at Hopkins County jail, she said, show her that the possibilities are endless. She says she’s always leaned toward employment in the medical field, because it’s what her grandmother did, and would allow her to help people. She said she’d like to be a teacher, but isn’t sure that’s possible, because of past mistakes which resulted in her being jailed. She said she’d really like to work with children.
Jail Administrator Kenneth Dean said the women’s successes are due to their dedication to attend the class, a desire to change and willingness to put in the work to learn and attain their GEDs. He also credits Nylan, who he says is just as dedicated if not more so to all of her students. Nylan volunteers her time to teach the inmates who truly want to learn and are willing to work hard. She also builds in life-lessons along with the test material.
Nylan said while the numbers in the GED class still tend to be small. She’s had up to six attending the class at one time, but over the last 2 ½ years has maintained three consistently in the class, a comfortable number. When needed, she’s been allowed to bring in an additional tutor on subjects outside her scope of expertise.
Maranda Miller is also in the GED class while serving as a trustee at the jail. She said she quit in the second semester of 11th grade. She has been taking it for the last couple of months said the class is going great. She said previously it wasn’t something she would have pursued but plans to continue taking classes, even if she is released from jail, so she can attain her GED. Seeing Dunham and Wooten receive their GED makes her want to strive to do it too.
“It’s a blessing to be able to have the GED,” Miller said. “Mrs. Nylan is an amazing teacher.”
Nylan said those who attend the class have to work. In addition to the class work, each has to dedicate themselves to completing work on their own when they return to their dorms.
Miller said having the two other women at one point in the same dorm helped. They’ve encouraged and helped each other.
When inmates show a desire to work toward a GED, prison curriculum is used to assess needs. However, she says she uses it more as a review or tutorial than a lesson plan. She uses other resources from her personal library and available to her to teach lessons. The students don’t typically start in the GED book until nearer to time to take the test, as it’s for review, not teaching.
Dunham and Wooten said some of the more basic lessons, the building blocks, they learned early on were at times more difficult than more advanced lessons. In math, for instance, Wooten remembers studying about polynomial in school, but she had more difficulty understanding about them this go round. Dunham said she expected science to be her most challenging subject but did well on it.
They also had to make the adjustment from textbooks to computer, where they were tested in reading, language arts, science, math and social studies.
Paris Junior College-Sulphur Springs Center allowed the trustees to take a practice test and GED test on the computers at the school. That was an adjustment.
Wooten said she hasn’t used computers in the 9 months she’s been in jail, so making the change from paper to computer where the test is administered was an adjustment. Nylan helped keep that in perspective, reminding them they know the material, they’re just having to use a different part of their brain is used for computer work than tactile pencil and book work.
Wooten and Dunham admitted to being a little nervous taking the test, but felt they’d been well prepared. Dunham admitted she’s always had test anxiety, and would have felt a lot more confident taking the test had Nylan administered it, instead of the computer test. Their hard work paid off this week, when they passed the test, each earning a GED.
Dunham said even without a GED, having different options available and things happen have made her feel like a different person, more confident. It’s taught her that if she can accomplish the things she sets out to do if she sticks with it.
Dean said the county is in discussions with Paris Junior College to offer more programs for inmates to help them be better prepared to enter the work force when they are released from custody.
“We do have some opportunities upcoming with PJC that that may have some program that they can continue to expand, vocational classes and different opportunities for them to do that. Judge [Robert] Newsom talked to PJC the other day and they were receptive with trying to help them pursue even further,” Dean said.
Workforce Solutions also has a grant that is currently being utilizing to help individuals upon their release from jail into the program to employment. Additional job placement opportunities through community partners are still being pursued, Dean noted.
Two jail trustees also this week received new teeth, part of a dental program offered to select trustee.
Maranda Miller and Jamie Dowell during the last week couldn’t stop smiling after benefiting from the program. Robert Stephens is having teeth pulled so he too can benefit from the program.
Dean said when the sheriff’s office reached out to Dr. Phil Jackson’s office, they were “just overboard with wanting to help.
“They give us a discount to help up to be able to afford to do what we’re doing on the teeth. Hats off to them. They were very, very willing to participate,” Dean said.
“They are good,” Dowell said. “I feel so pretty.”
Miller said having new teeth and has allowed her to feel confident in herself, to the point she feels like a different person. She sees many opportunities ahead and feels that she can accomplish her goals.
“I’ve seen the confidence level in every one of them just skyrocketed. They have that self esteem that they might not have had before. That’s huge,” Dean said.
“We selected three. All this is funded out of our commissary account, which we can utilize that for the benefit of the inmates. It’s not open to just anybody. The ones that really rose to the top by showing that change, that want to change in their life. For a female it’s important for their smile, especially if they’ve got a job. Before they got their teeth they’d always walk around with a hand over their mouth. Now, they smile proudly, confidently.”
“It’s neat to see. Robert is in the process of his. Those three as far as the teeth go they’ve shown it.”
“I lost my confidence and Mr. Dean said, ‘We’re going to get that confidence back.’ I finally got it back. It’s amazing,” Miller said.
“This is going to help us further away in our future, further jobs. We get more. Yes, this is the county jail, but this is a jail that helps and they thrive. Even though we are inmates, the look at helping, just that hand of helping that we’ve always needed in our life that the sheriff and Mr. Dean provide for us. That’s just through the goodness of God, our blessings, that we got put in this position to both of these programs that they provide for us. Because, they don’t have to give them to us.That just shows you that they care about their inmates as much as they care about their families,” Stephens said.
Miller said being open to the opportunities that are available and the support system have been a big part of the trustee program’s successes. She said the other inmates and staff offer a support system that many didn’t have at home.
“It’s wonderful,” said Dowell.
“I lost my confidence and Mr. Dean said we’re going to get that confidence back. I finally got it back. It’s amazing,” Miller said.
Sheriff Lewis Tatum views the trustees programs are the completion of a circle.
“The sheriff’s philosophy is that we do what we can to provide that change for anybody that’s incarcerated in our jail. We provide opportunities and these have taken part in it and have made that change, which benefit them, it benefits our community. It’s a benefit all the way around. When it’s so many components involved: Mrs. Nylan with the GED, the ministries that come in, there’s so much involved. That’s what it’s about. Making that change. they have to want to make the change, which will benefit them and the community. There are so many choices involved,” Dean said.
“They’re helping us. We’re helping them. They’re helping the community. We’re saving taxpayers money. I don’t look on them as inmates. I don’t treat them any different than anyone else. I don’t want them to be treated different than anyone else. They need to get out of here and take care of their lives and their families. They gotta take care of me when I get old, and I’m getting there now,” Sheriff Lewis Tatum said.
“For over 20 years, I’ve put plenty people in jail and sent plenty to prison while I was an investigator and deputy. I want to put them out in the world. The other way wasn’t working too well. So, lets contribute back to society,” Tatum said.
Tatum said he understands to some degree what people in jail feel, having experienced being away from his family, locked up, anxious and unable to converse with anyone kin him during his time in the service on an amphibious assault ship. He wants to help inmates make that adjustment and better prepare them to return to society.
“I can see where they come from, and it’s hard. So if you will take these blessings here and contribute to society, go on out on your own and be somebody that will reward us more than anything. We know some of them are going to stumble and fall, and we’ll try to pick them up again,” Tatum said.
“That’s exactly right,” Dowell said. “But the stumbling and falling part is no option.”
“I would never be able to face Mr. Dean again,” Miller said.
“It’s kind of like all of our lives we’ve never had somebody to stand up for us and go to bat for us and have our back. We’ve been in families where it’s not been that way. So to have somebody stand up for us, go to bat for us, makes us look at like completely different, makes me look at life completely different. To say, wow, I do have value. I do have a light inside of me. There’s something inside of me that has these people around here in this community want to stand up for me, go to bat for me. That right there, I will never, never change or go back to my old ways. It’s an amazing feeling,” Dowell said.
“It’s building my self esteem back up. It’s something I probably wouldn’t have got if I wasn’t incarcerated. It’s not only that. There’s just so much that this county provides right here out of this jail. It’s such a blessing, an opportunity to come here and grasp that and grab a hold of it and go further in. I look at myself different than how I used to look at myself,” Stephens. “The trustees here, they put us out there to do good jobs for them and they hold us on a high standard. We don’t want to ever let them down.”
Dowell said she loves being able to go out into the community and work.
“The ladies that we go work for, we pray with, we talk with, we cry with, we build family with them. So, it’s amazing for the ladies, I don’t know how it is for the men. The places we go work, you would think we would come in in stripes and they would look at us weird and not talk to us but they don’t. We give hugs. We do everything together. It’s amazing. It’s not just the people in this community. This town is amazing. Everybody works together. It doesn’t clash, it coincides; it goes together, like she was teaching, and it’s amazing,” Dowell said.
Dowell was booked into the county jail on July 27 and became a trustee on Aug. 11. However, an event on Aug. 10 made a huge impact on her life.
“I went to Restoration Fire on Aug. 10. My life has been forever changed since that. I was lucky enough to be able to go out to a church with Mr. Dean and a few of the ladies and really let go and let God. Ever since that night, I have been completely changed. I feel like a different woman. Then, I go into the trustee and have all these doors open for me,” Dowell said.
“God has truly opened so many doors in my life that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t messed up in my life and got to this point right here, right now. I know that for every season is a reason, and I know that in my mess, God is going to turn it into a miracle and God is going to be forever in my life,” said Dowell.
She said her family has been contacted regarding her children, who she lost all rights to, and a potential opportunity for a family reunion in which she can smile at them again. She’s excited about potential job opportunities upon her release.
“I didn’t gain people up here, I gained a family up here and I will be forever knocking on yall’s doors,” Dowell said with a laugh. “This community has helped me more than I could ever hope for or dream for in my entire life. … As Ms. Shelly would say, this ain’t a set back it’s a set up. This place is a complete set up for us in our lives. All you’ve got to do is say yes and go with it. Go. I’m ready to go and continue to walk in it.”
“To mess up at all we’d have to take deliberate action. I don’t think any of us will ever go back to anything like that. I think that we are set up. All we’ve got to do is be persistent,” Wooten.
“It just shows us the life skills we should have been walking,” Stephens said.
He the jail has helped change from a criminal mind set to one in which he wants to go to out out and work every day and come home to a loving family at night, instead of waking up and thinking of criminal acts.
“Now, we think positive. We live by faith. We walk by faith, not by sight,” Stephens said.
“We are loved and we feel loved,” Dowell said.
“More free in jail than I was out in the world,” Miller said.
Stephens said he’s enrolled in another new program, just started at the jail, a disciples class.
“It helps you learn more about the Bible, how to pray, how to dig in deeper,” Stephens said.
Dean explained the discipleship class is an advanced class taught by a local minister; only 10 were selected to participate in the class.
Dowell touted One Accord, a ministry she’d never heard of before being jailed, as the “most amazing church I’ve ever been to in my life.” She said the church, open on Tuesday at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m., is spirit and love filled, very inclusive and welcoming.
“It started out as a Bible study at Judge Newsom’s house and it’s grown so much so they had to start renting a building. Well, I want it to grow even more, where they can just buy a building,” Dowell said.
The Hopkins County Sheriff’s Office is located at 298 Rosemont St., Sulphur Springs, TX 75482. Non-emergency calls can be made to (903) 438-4040.