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Holding center inmates earn high school diplomas behind bars

Some inmates at the Erie County Holding Center aren’t idly passing their days, weeks or months behind bars as they await resolution of their cases in the legal system.

They’re attending classes to continue or restart their educations.

Last year, 35 earned high school diplomas, according to county and city officials.

“Of all the things that I do ... this is one of the things I’m most proud to know exists in our city,” said Kriner Cash, superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools.

The grant-funded program, developed three years ago, is a collaboration between the Sheriff’s Office, Buffalo Public Schools’ Adult Education Division and the district’s Title I program.

The average stay for an inmate in the holding center is approximately 10 to 17 days, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said, although some could be there up to two years, depending on the legal process.

More than 300 inmates were eligible for the program in 2014-15.

Of the 35 who earned a high school diploma, four attained that milestone while behind bars. The others returned to their home school districts after being released.

“Clearly, there is more work to do, but this is a tremendous start,” Cash said.

“Education beats incarceration,” the schools superintendent continued. “Thirty-five is better than none, and none was the answer a few years ago.”

Two programs are offered: high school equivalency for inmates age 17 and older, and plain old high school classes for those who still should be in school. Younger inmates are screened within 24 hours of arrival at the holding center.

“As soon a student comes in, they sit with a counselor,” according to John Iorio, supervisor of adult education for Buffalo Public Schools.

Students receive highly individualized instruction, which continues when they return to their home districts, he said.

There are a pair of classrooms at the holding center, each with no more than a handful of students.

Buffalo Public Schools provide the teachers.

Those facilities constitute an official school within the district.

“The teachers are not employees of the county – they’re employees of the city,” Howard noted.

There are three hours of instruction daily and tutoring is available; women and men attend classes in separate rooms.

Older inmates attend class from 8 to 11 a.m. in a high school equivalency program – formerly known as GED; instruction for high school-age inmates is held from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

The schedule for the younger inmates is deliberate, said Jaime L. Cohen, director of Title 1 for Buffalo Public Schools.

“It doesn’t interfere with any visits, court dates,” she said.

Receiving an education while behind bars presents inmates with lifestyle options – including marketability in the workplace, officials from the Sheriff’s Office said.

“They can choose the right path because they have a basic education,” said Capt. Jeffrey Hartman, the program’s coordinator.