MIAMI — Inmate Melinda Wilson watches the busload of new arrivals joining her every Thursday with growing concern — too many have been there before.
"Don't turn into a career criminal," the 52-year-old lectures them at Homestead Correctional Institution. "Get involved or you're going to use this place like a revolving door."
Wilson had a fourth-grade education when she was sentenced to 22 years for second-degree murder and robbery in 2007. But she dreamed of getting a high school diploma, something tangible to encourage her when "that worthless feeling" darkened her prison cell.
She got it last week, marching the prison hallways to "Pomp and Circumstance," wearing a blue cap and gown to receive her GED certificate along with a handful of fellow inmates.
Some 2,603 state prisoners received their high school equivalency diploma during the 2009-10 fiscal year, the largest number in state history. The number of inmates earning GED certificates nearly doubled in three years, from 1,313 in 2005-06, according to the Department of Corrections. A similar number of graduates is expected in the 2010-11 fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.
This happened while the agency's education budget was cut almost in half over the last eight years, from about $40 million to $23 million. That forced the department to close about 25 of its 50 education programs and cut its education staff from 614 positions to 344, said Eric Gaines, who heads the DOC's education department.
The numbers were grim but officials devised a way to beef up their staff using inmates. In 2005, they targeted inmates with a GED or higher who did well on assessment tests and were willing to take a six-week course so they could teach others.
The inmate tutors were matched with a teacher and placed in prisons that lost their education programs. About 300 inmates now have teaching certificates and are able to give more one-on-one teaching time to student inmates, officials said.
"You're actually being a benefit to the system, not just being a negative to the system," Gaines said of the tutors.
Angela Wicklow came to the Homestead prison for the six-week teaching course and will return to Broward County to help other inmates.
"It makes me feel better that I'm not just sitting here doing nothing," said 25-year-old Wicklow. "I'm being useful to someone else."
Wicklow, who has served three years of her 20-year sentence for robbery with a firearm, said she tries to use real-life scenarios to make hard math lessons more relatable.
Experts say inmates who have a GED when they're released return to prison nearly 8 percent less than inmates overall.
"If you don't have an education as a convicted felon, you don't have a fighting chance," Homestead Assistant Warden James Thornton told the graduates.
About 70 percent of the 37,000 inmates released in Florida every year don't have a GED. DOC is able to enroll nearly 9,000 and gives priority to inmates serving a sentence less than three years, the department said.
Jackie Postma, who is serving a life sentence for a second-degree murder conviction, knows she won't get to use her education to land a job, but she can help others find employment.
"I'm the mother hen. I have prison children that I love to encourage and help. How can I encourage them to get their GEDs if I don't have my own?" the 40-year-old valedictorian said. "If I'm going to be here (for life) I want to help them to get to be what they want to be."