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Jeremy Matter, an inmate at the Becker County Minimum Security Jail, is working on punctuation, grammar, building proper sentences and pronouns in preparation for his upcoming GED test. He started working on his GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma, in 2004, taking several years off in between to work, and is hoping to pass his final test in the next couple weeks and then continue on to college for training in computers. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

Jail inmates earning high school diplomas

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After his first son was born, Jeremy Matter decided it was time to get his GED. Unfortunately, life got in the way, but six years later, he's just days away from finally earning it.

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In order to pay for rent and child support, Matter would quit working on his GED and head to work. In 2004, he spent six months in the Becker County Minimum Security Jail and had plenty of time to study and tested out of all portions of the GED except English.

Then he got out of jail and returned to work and never went to take his final test.

Now, six years later, Matter, after spending time in Minimum Security again for being two months late on child support, has worked with teacher Amy Fish and is planning to take his final test for English and get his GED.

"She's a very good teacher," Matter said of Fish. "She can pinpoint our weaknesses from the pre-tests."

After getting his GED, Matter said he plans to "go into college and do something with computers" to get a better job and earn more money.

"It will help me get a better job," he said of getting his GED. "There's more to a person's drive when wanting to achieve your GED."

It's students like Matter that Fish has been working with for four years. When she came to town, she applied for the job because she was used to working with men and women with behavioral problems. She works with inmates at the minimum security jail Monday evenings and with Becker County Jail inmates on Wednesdays.

"She's really good at what she does," Matter said. "We enjoy her coming in here."

Teachers through Adult Basic Education have been coming into the jail for about 15 years, helping inmates earn their GEDs and teaching them other lessons as well.

"A lot of them are embarrassed to say they don't have their GED or education," Jailer and Program Coordinator Jim Varno said.

But, Varno himself said he took one of Fish's classes, Money Smarts, that teaches people how to get and afford loans, and just the basics of money management.

Fish also helps inmates study for the driver's license test -- "that's a big one" -- career placement tests, resume work, Accuplacer studying and other college entrance exams, computer skills and typing and communication and social skills, like not swearing.

A major benefit of earning their GED or taking the extra classes, Varno said, is "a higher likelihood of getting a job after they get out." And, he added, they feel better about themselves for getting an education.

Many of the inmates don't seize the opportunity to take Fish's classes, Varno said, but he encourages them to do so, especially those who still need their GEDs. At the jail on Wednesdays, Fish sees the women inmates in the morning and the men in the afternoon. Depending on the week, and who is in jail, she can see three to 15 inmates a day. She gives the students homework for during the week and then works with them on what they don't understand on the days she's there.

"It's all pretty basic, but it's stuff I haven't worked on since elementary or junior high," Matter said.

"Jim's amazing. I'm only here once a week," Fish said of Varno's assistance.

"It's rewarding for me when, rather than sleeping or watching TV, (an inmate) asks me about a math problem or science question," Varno agrees.

"It changes their whole life and they see they can start earning a career," he added.

One thing Varno and Fish stress is that the program funding comes out of the inmates' canteen fund and not taxpayer's money. Matter said it is up to the inmates to pay their fee for taking the final test, also.

Fish said increasing inmates' education and literacy is the best way to keep them out of the jail system.

She said she gets asked if she feels scared all the time, but she said not at all. In her four years, there's only been one fight at the jail while she was there, and the inmates all gathered around her to protect her. She added that she's dealt with more problems in the high school setting than she has in the jail setting.

Varno said people tend to view inmates differently than the rest of society. "But they're your next door neighbor -- it just so happens now they're in jail. They are society."

"They are mostly younger people who did something stupid and are returning to our community," Fish added.

Unfortunately, most of the inmates aren't in jail long enough to finish the GED testing completely, but Fish always encourages them to continue after they are released. There is no way of tracking whether or not they do though.

Unless, of course, they come back and say they finished. "That's always rewarding," she said. "It's simple -- you're making a choice. Most are motivated to set goals."

"Amy's been great in motivating the inmates to stay positive," Varno said.

It's that motivation from the inmates and from Fish that have benefited inmates like Matter.

"Hopefully in a couple weeks I will have my GED and can enroll in college," he said.

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