- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

OROFINO, Idaho (AP) - Prison inmate Dwain Whitaker began his education behind bars at a third-grade level.

Two years later, he earned the highest scores his instructor has seen on the General Educational Development certificate.

Fourteen GED recipients were recognized at the prison’s Robert Janss School Thursday, along with nine others who completed a literacy program in the past year.

The Lewiston Tribune reported Friday that Whitaker before the ceremony talked about the aptitude for learning he has discovered at the Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino.

“I love math, and I’m reading like crazy,” he said. “I’m reading all of the classics now.”

His favorite so far, he said, is “Oliver Twist.”

While he would love to earn a college degree, Whitaker said, he has at least 15 years remaining in prison and no way to pay for it while he’s there.

Whitaker’s sentences for lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor younger than 16 and sexual abuse of a minor younger than 16 mean he won’t be eligible for parole until 2029.

Inmates can attend classes at the school inside the penitentiary for up to three hours a day, with an additional hour of library time, instructor Danielle Hardy said.

Classes include GED preparation, vocational reading and math, welding and computer maintenance.

Computer skills are essential for success in many fields, as well as for passing the GED, she said, so students have access to computer labs on an internal network - but no Internet access.

After graduating, inmates can remain involved with the school by assisting instructors.

Tony Chacartegui, for example, works as a clerk.

“So I help other people get their GEDs,” Chacartegui said.

Chacartegui, who is serving time for drug trafficking and delivery of a controlled substance, said he’s taking college correspondence courses and hopes to earn an engineering degree when he gets out. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2019.

The prison school, he said, has given him reason to believe that’s possible.

“Really, a lot of us don’t come in here with a lot of success under our belts,” he said. “We’re afraid of failure.”

GED graduate Michael Espinosa, who will be eligible for parole next year, hopes to become a master welder.

When he was sentenced to prison for robbery, Espinosa had a ninth-grade education. After nine months of studying at the prison school, he passed the GED earlier this month.

“I got to see what actually happens when I apply myself,” he said. “Now I wonder what else I can do.”

Seeing her students succeed in the classroom is rewarding, Hardy said.

“Education is a key factor to reduce recidivism,” she said. “My goal is when they get out of here they have a living wage.”

Unlike the violent prisons often depicted on TV and in movies, Hardy said the atmosphere at her workplace is mostly positive.

“It’s the safest school you’ll ever work in,” she said. “They are very respectful.”

___

Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com

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