In April 2023, Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner brought IGNITE to local inmates with the mission of preparing them for life outside of confinement. Launched by Sheriff Christopher Swanson in the county jail in Genesee County, Michigan, in 2020, the goal of IGNITE is in the name: Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education.
According to Skinner, most people who are sent to prison eventually end up returning to their communities. “Therefore,” he says, “we have good reason to work to improve their lives and circumstances.” He wanted to improve the circumstances of each inmate in the hope that they would be prepared for a fresh new chapter upon reentry into the world.
“Like Sheriff Swanson, I believe that education and job training can reduce recidivism,” says Skinner, “especially when a person earns a certification in a particular skill, such as food preparation, or otherwise improves his or her education or job knowledge. With useful education and skills, participants gain hope for the future. Equally important, participants learn that the detention staff — and by extension, the community — care about their welfare and future.”
Although Skinner says most people in jail do end up returning to their communities, what happens next is unpredictable.
Recidivism refers to the phenomenon of a convicted criminal re-offending after being released from jail or prison. According to First Step Alliance, a nonprofit organization designed to improve the lives of newly released inmates, 70% of released inmates commit some form of criminal offense within the first five years of their release.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that the number of people in local and county jails collectively is up to 18 times the number of people in federal and state prisons. As most people in county jail aren’t there for an extended period of time, Skinner feels that helping inmates while they are in Collin County Jail is essential for the community to thrive.
The flagship Genesee County IGNITE program has already proven successful. Since launching in Genesee County, the program has expanded to North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, North Dakota, South Dakota and, of course, Collin County. In September 2022, the first round of participants in the flagship program was honored in a special graduation ceremony, which was livestreamed via Facebook.
“You are a walking, talking commercial,” Swanson said to the participants. “You are a walking, talking testimony because there are people who don’t have the belief that you have, and they’re gonna see your story, and they’re gonna be inspired by it.”
Skinner believes that Collin County’s IGNITE program will be beneficial not only to the inmates but to the greater good. According to Dallas Morning News, “about 2,500 students have enrolled” in IGNITE programs across the country.
“The big majority of persons detained in a county jail returns to their community,” says Skinner. “Our community. Thus, we have good reason to help improve their lives and circumstances.”
Skinner estimates that Collin County Jail holds “over 1,000 persons each day.” The jail currently has under 1,300 beds, though Collin County is currently working on a new orientation-housing cluster, which will have 180 new beds, and a new jail infirmary with over 400 beds.
For the Collin County chapter of IGNITE, Skinner utilizes various forms of modern technology, providing lessons and classes on a multitude of subjects. Inmates can participate in traditional high school core classes along with adult life skill courses like budgeting and financial management.
Skinner says no two paths look alike for inmates in the IGNITE program. At the time of writing, inmates in the IGNITE program are able to take the aforementioned core classes. Skinner is also currently working to establish a component of the program in which participants can earn job and career certifications.
“We have an inmate farm and beekeeping, and the state recently certified the jail’s barber college,” says Skinner. “We are also working to partner with a local community college to connect persons with continuing-education classes and an opportunity to earn a degree.”
Additionally, Skinner and IGNITE are in the process of working with local businesses to line up second-chance jobs for inmates so they can begin working upon their return to the community. They are also planning to work with local community colleges to help inmates further their education beyond high school courses and earn a degree.
The Collin County chapter of IGNITE is still relatively new, but in the year since its launch, the program has achieved some remarkable feats. After the jail’s barber college received official state certification, its students got to participate in a graduation ceremony — cap and gown and all.
Skinner notes that the IGNITE program comes at “relatively low cost to the taxpayer.” While it is too early to evaluate the long-term results of Collin County’s IGNITE chapter, Skinner is confident in the future of the program and the people who have participated and will participate in IGNITE.
“They don’t want to return, much less go to prison,” says Skinner. “If given a chance to learn, gain new skills or increase their chances of job success, many will take it and work hard. The community should welcome this and support these people. We hope that our version of IGNITE will make a big difference.”