Stephanie Garcia is a high school student. She’s also a 24-year-old inmate at the Lockhart Correctional Facility, a minimum-security women’s prison in Central Texas. Outside, her life was hectic, but here, every day is the same.
“I go to sleep at about 4 o’clock in the morning,” Garcia says. “I sleep ’til about 12:30, get up, do my hygienes, take a shower, go straight to school from 1 to 4. I eat, wait for mail ’til about 5:30, 6. I take a nap. I wake up at 9 and then I stay up until like 4 in the morning. I do my work, I read, and then I do it all over again. So the only thing I really do is school.”
Garcia is one of 12 inmates currently enrolled in Goodwill’s high school program in the prison. She completed four classes in six weeks last spring. She’s enrolled in four more right now. At this pace, she thinks she’ll be able to graduate by the time she comes up for parole next year.
“High school was out of the picture for me, honestly,” Garcia says. “I didn’t think that there was actually a program where I could be going on 30 years old and get my high school diploma. To me, this is like my last chance.”
Currently, the school is one of four high school programs operating in Texas prisons. Goodwill, like the other programs, can only grant diplomas to inmates up to age 26, but that’s about to change. The Texas Legislature recently gave Goodwill approval to graduate inmates up to 50 years of age. When it receives its new charter this fall, the school plans to increase its enrollment to 75 inmates.
Garcia says she never imagined she could get her diploma. She failed seventh grade twice, got caught with cocaine, then got kicked out of middle school and sent to a school for juvenile offenders. Then, she got pregnant. Ironically, prison gave her an opportunity she didn’t have in the outside world.
“I really wanted my GED,” she says. “That’s the only thing I thought I was going to be able to get. Now, when my cellie told me about a high school program I was like, okay, that sounds cool.”
Garcia’s “cellie,” or cell mate, is Alexandria Carroll.
In the outside world, Carroll is also a mom. Here, she has no responsibilities and no distractions. So, she plowed through her credits in under a year. She only needs one more to graduate.
Carroll hopes to finish before she gets out. She’s rushing because her parole hearing could be as early as November.
“Everybody’s like, please see me early. I’m like, please don’t see me til December, so I can graduate and get my parole answer right after that,” she says.
Carroll is one of the program’s top students. She dreams of becoming a mobile x-ray technician. Her teachers have helped her come up with a plan to go to college when she gets out. The person helping Carroll prepare for her SAT is Sara Howze.
“For those of them that want to go on, I’ve tried to be as encouraging as possible,” Howze says. “Or just figuring out, like, what you want to do when you get out so you’ve got a game plan.”
On one hand, educational programs in prisons aren’t unique. In fact, inmates entering prison without a GED or high school diploma must enroll in one to be considered for parole. Most get a GED, but research shows a high school diploma is more valuable because it increases a student’s chances of graduating from college, and helps them develop life skills. Don Webb is with Goodwill.
“Basically we are wanting them when they leave our program to re-engage successfully with the outside world,” Webb says. “So, it’s a combination of what they need psychologically and intellectually for dealing with the world.”
Once graduates are released, Goodwill wants to help them find jobs. Teachers at the prison are connecting graduates with felon-friendly careers. Howze says one graduate reached out to her over the summer.
“She called me and said, ‘I’m in Dallas, and I’m so confused by this job thing.’ So I said ‘Here’s the deal,’ and talked her through it,” Howze says. “So that was a success.”
Goodwill wants to track outcomes to prove the program is worth expanding to other prisons. For now, they’re relying on the testimony of individuals like Stephanie Garcia. She says the first time she got out of prison she went back to dealing drugs, but she believes things will be different this time around.
“I mean, yeah, I’m in prison, but I don’t see it like that,” she says. “I see it the way my daughter thinks of it now, I’m at school — ‘Mommy’s at school’ — and really it’s true, I’m in high school right now.”
One lesson she learned from school is that she needs structure to succeed. So this time, she’s thinking of going to a halfway house when she gets out, where she will be held accountable. After that, she wants to go to college.
“I’ve never thought of these things,” she says. “It’s all new to me.”
The first step, at least, is clear. It’s getting that diploma.