April 27, 2018
Story and photos by Brandon Steinert
Xavier Pennington landed in jail in 2016 for dealing drugs. It was rock bottom, but from there he had nowhere to go but up. Now the once high-school-dropout has earned his diploma via the state GED exam through Barton Community College, and has mastered skills to earn an honest wage when he is released in November of 2019.
Pennington graduated along with dozens of his peers Wednesday afternoon at Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility (LCMHF), where he studied to earn a Kansas high school diploma, Kansas WORKReady! Certification and an Introduction to Craft Skills (ICS) certificate and an OSHA 10 certificate through Barton’s program, Building Academic Skills in Correctional Settings (BASICS). Graduates also earned carpentry and digital literacy certificates, with 31 earning high school diplomas through the state GED exam.
Pennington plans to land a job when granted his freedom, but he has more ambitious long-term plans.
“I want to open my own company,” he said. “I would have had four months left in high school and I could have had a scholarship to study to become an architect, but I dropped out. It feels good to finally graduate.”
Pennington’s peer Daniel Keith has a similar story. He turned himself in when he was charged with aggravated robbery and possession of narcotics in 2016. He said he had no plans for his life at the time.
But Keith, endowed with new skills, has set a new trajectory. He graduated with a high school diploma, ICS, Kansas WORKReady! and an OSHA 10 certificate through Barton at the celebration Wednesday. He plans to pursue an education in business after his sentence is served in May of 2019, then enter the real estate industry refurbishing old homes and renting them out. He has a head start thanks to his high score on the GED exam, which netted him a scholarship to cover 30 credit hours.
“It took me coming to prison to get my life in focus,” he said. “I never thought I would graduate, but here I am. It’s a good feeling. I’m grateful to Barton for the opportunity and all the support. It’s nice having a long-term plan that isn’t selling dope or robbing somebody.”
Barton Instructor Reva Preeo has been teaching inmates at LCMHF for 17 years and joined Barton’s ranks in August of 2017. Both Pennington and Keith noted Preeo’s unwavering support as a key element to their success.
“I always have hope for everybody,” Preeo said. “This is not the best time in their lives, but I can help them be able to achieve more. They know now that they can accomplish things in their lives.”
Like most teachers, she takes pride in her students’ progress, but as an instructor in a correctional facility, she has unorthodox wishes for future communication with her pupils.
“I hope I never see them come back,” she said.
About Barton’s Correctional Education Offerings
Barton Community College has partnered with both LCMHF and Ellsworth Correctional Facility (ECF) to bring educational opportunities to inmates. Tuition and fees are funded either by the families of inmates or private donations from citizens who have recognized the program’s significant benefits to society. Barton recently expanded its offerings at Larned with the Kansas Department of Corrections new focus for the facility to serve young men.
A vast majority of inmates will eventually be released into society when their sentence is complete, and it’s one of Barton’s prerogatives, in partnership with the Kansas Department of Corrections, to make sure they don’t wind up back behind bars.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, state correctional facilities have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6 percent. Education has been identified as having a tremendous impact on reducing recidivism, which ultimately saves taxpayers money on incarcerating inmates. For every dollar invested in inmate education, private or otherwise, taxpayers see almost a five-dollar return on investment in savings according to a 2015 NPR article.
For more information on the Barton BASICS program, including stats on recidivism and funding sources, visit bartonccc.edu/breakthecycle.