James Parham III of York doesn’t even flinch when he hears the doors lock behind him or the slight clang of the steel bars at the Spartanburg County Detention Center.
Each week, he walks through the metal detectors and is buzzed through doorways as he’s escorted to where the prisoners live.
The USC Upstate freshman chats easily with Deputy A. Scealf ‘13, a detention officer and fellow Spartan, as they walk along the corridors. He knows that in a couple of hours, he’ll be free to walk outside, breathe fresh air and return to campus.
“Being locked in jail for a few hours every week has changed my perspective on how the accused and convicted are perceived,” said Parham, an Honors student in a service-learning class where students volunteer time to tutor inmates participating in an adult education program called Operation Educate.
It’s the type of experience that USC Upstate instructors Dr. Samantha Hauptman and Dr. Araceli Hernández-Laroche hope all students will come away with in their service-learning course on “The Twin Ills of Terrorism and Torture.”
Hauptman, a former employee with the South Carolina Department of Corrections, said the need for inmate education is of great importance. While she doesn’t condone the choices an inmate made or absolve them of any guilt, education, or lack thereof, is likely the reason they’ve turned to a life of crime.
“If they have a GED or a high school diploma, it certainly opens up more opportunities for them on the job front,” she said.
Introducing the idea to the students was the easiest part, according to Hernández-Laroche. She said the students were eager to learn more about the jail tours and training sessions, prior to beginning the tutoring sessions.
“Many of these inmates are so close to completing their high school equivalency. They have to learn those skills, set goals and then to accomplish those things,” Hernández-Laroche said. “Our students will be there to help them bridge that gap by reinforcing the things that they are learning in class and by helping them to study for the test that will allow them to earn their GED.”
It’s an experience that Parham said he would describe as unique, more than overwhelming.
“Being in the jail is like being in a whole other world,” he said. “But once I met the student inmates and worked with them, I saw how focused they were on seizing this opportunity to achieve their goals, and everything felt normal to me after that.”
Parham’s student, Sheena Auman, 27, of Chesnee, dropped out of high school a frustrated 16-year-old with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She admits she could have and should have made better choices in life, but she’s learned from her mistakes and is trying to make a better life for herself and her children.
Each week she spends a few hours working on her GED through an adult education program offered at the jail. In need of a little extra help with her studies, Auman has been partnered with USC Upstate students who tutor her and other inmates.
“I want to make sure I better myself before I leave from here,” Auman said. “I promised my dad and I want to keep that promise.”
Auman said that she will return to court on May 20, but for now, she said she is thankful for what she has learned while in jail and a reminder of why she doesn’t plan to return.
“Outside of here, I never would have thought about participating in a program like this,” Auman said. “I always depended on other people, the wrong people, to get me through life. I want to be a better person, a more knowledgeable person when I leave here.”
Auman said she hopes to be able to find a place to live, a job and to get custody of her three children. Inside the walls of the detention center, she said she’s learned about God, prayer, and positive thinking, all of which has helped her to be happy and content, even in the small confines of her cell.
Preparing to leave, Parham shakes Auman’s hand and encourages her to keep working hard and tells her that he will continue to pray for her. Auman flashes a quick smile and thanks him for his help. Then, with a deputy escort, Parham walks back through the locked corridors and toward freedom with plans to return the next week.