Jail offers second chance to earn diplomas: Sheriff says education can help reduce recidivism

Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.


Markayla Smith is getting a second chance at her education in an unlikely place — the Wilson County Detention Center.

The 20-year-old uses a tablet to complete online coursework that will help her obtain her high school equivalency diploma, which has been a dream in creating a pathway to better herself.

Smith is one of seven people who have taken advantage of the new program Sheriff Calvin Woodard launched in November along with a Wilson Community College partnership.

“The classes are great,” Smith said. “The way they teach (online) it’s like you are in a classroom and get one-on-one with a teacher.”

Since beginning the program, Smith has completed 284 lessons online and 47 courses. And she thinks she will be ready to take the General Education Development test in a couple of months. The program is free and available to those jailed in Wilson County’s facility.

“I always had a goal; I just knew where I was at the time I wasn’t going to be able to achieve it,” Smith said. “I was going through a lot. I feel like God puts you in certain situations for a certain reason.”


Across the country, detention facilities are expanding technology when it comes to making contact with the outside world.

While the Wilson County Detention Center has several telephones stationed inside, the 51 tablets that Woodard recently brought in are through a company called Pay Tel, where those jailed can make phone calls or send text messages through a tablet device for a fee. The county also receives a percentage of the fees for those calls and texts that goes back into the general fund, officials said.

But Woodard’s goal in bringing in those tablets was to establish a GED program. When researching what the tablets — which Pay Tel provides for free — could do, he realized they could serve a dual purpose.

Education, including the GED program, was the main driver behind bringing in the tablets at no cost to taxpayers.

“A lot of our people who are ages 18 and above don’t have their high school education,” Woodard said. “It was a program within the making, and it took some time, but we were able to make it happen.”


Woodard reached out to Wilson Community College about a partnership for the program. Those jailed and waiting for their cases to be resolved can work toward their GED diploma by taking accredited classes online. Woodard said once an individual is ready and has completed the required coursework, WCC will send someone inside the jail to administer the test.

“With the program, we can bring in a proctor,” Woodard said. “We can set it up where they can teach the test or give the test or whatever we need to do to make it happen.”

Woodard said education is key in preventing recidivism. And it’s all about giving people an opportunity to propel themselves forward once they get out.

“I looked at it like this: How we can help somebody else in the community attain their goals?” he said.

Woodard said something as simple as obtaining a GED diploma can open up new possibilities.

“You can apply for jobs,” he said. “Because a lot of good jobs won’t take you if you don’t have a GED. If you don’t have opportunity, then where will that lead you? It may put you back trying to find other alternatives to live.”

He said that’s why a program like this is vital. It shows individuals they can accomplish a goal, further their education and become productive members of society.


Smith grew up in and out of foster homes, which meant she changed schools several times, she said.

“Some schools teach differently, and I wasn’t able to get the hang of it,” she said, adding that she dropped out of school in ninth grade.

Smith said since it had been so long since she hit the books to study, she was scared when she first started the program.

But once she completed one course, she was empowered to keep going.

“It made me feel like I am achieving something, that I’ve actually been given another chance,” Smith said. “I can do it. I know I can do it. I just thank God because it gave me a second chance.”

Smith, who was speaking in general terms, said youths who grow up in the streets often don’t have family support. Some are just trying to figure out where their next meal will come from. If they have younger siblings, the oldest youth takes on the responsibility of ensuring they are fed. And then youths turn to criminal behavior out of necessity.

“The streets are hard,” she said. “It’s about surviving. You don’t focus on going to school.”


Smith said once her case is resolved, she hopes to help other youths, speak at schools and become a psychologist.

“My education doesn’t stop here,” she said. “I want to be able to tell somebody, ‘You can do it.’”

Woodard said that’s what the program is all about, enhancing people’s education with the hope of them changing their lives and helping someone else in return.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” he said. “Everybody in the jail is innocent until proven guilty. When there is someone like her that’s trying to better themselves ... nobody knows what is going to happen when that day comes (the outcome of a case), but at least you see a strong woman who is doing everything she possibly can do.”

Woodard said he’s always told his staff that nobody is perfect.

“We can be there, too,” he said. “That’s why it means so much to me to try and help somebody if we can. You can’t save all of them, but you can at least save one. She (Smith) may be able to save a whole community, a whole town. The sky’s the limit. I always say, if this poor boy from White Oak can become sheriff, anybody can accomplish anything.”