Jail education gets SharpePublished 7:37pm Saturday, May 11, 2013
When Ronnie Sharpe first came to work at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail 13 years ago, there wasn’t “much of an education department,” as he put it recently.
“They did have a GED program, but it was, as they say, kind of in disarray,” he said. “I had to start adding things little bit by little bit.”
Now, the jail not only has an improved GED program but also has career education, a re-entry course for inmates nearing the end of their sentences, nutrition classes, money management courses, a fatherhood program, a program for pregnant inmates, anger management and substance abuse classes, computer classes, group counseling-type classes and others.
Sharpe also has supported the need for special education services, implemented graduation ceremonies for all certificate programs and more.
Thanks to his extensive work, Sharpe received the Civilian of the Year award at the 15th annual Virginia Association of Regional Jails Conference last month in Virginia Beach. He bested nominations from the state’s 20 other regional jails for the award.
“At first, I was surprised,” Sharpe said. “I just didn’t imagine with the number of people that probably was in the competition. I was a little bit astounded.”
It hasn’t been an easy journey to grow the education department at the jail from a tiny GED program to what it is today. The jail didn’t even have a space for an education department when it was built, he said. Policies when he arrived prevented female inmates from even being in the area where classes were held.
“That was one of the first things I wound up having to try to work to get changed,” he said.
Gradually, Sharpe made strides in the level of education services at the jail. He secured space for the program. He noticed most of those who had not yet received their GED were struggling just in math, so he added an extra math session.
“I was helping them try to get over that hurdle so we could get some graduates,” he said.
He has partnered with many different organizations, including the College of William and Mary, the Up Center and the Virginia Employment Commission, to bring the programs and courses to the inmates at Western Tidewater Regional Jail.
Sharpe also has implemented a number of programs that do not typically meet in formal classes but help the inmates nonetheless.
The Second Chance program discusses individual needs with inmates nearing release and helps them apply for needs such as housing and education beforehand, giving them a steady start back in society. Similarly, inmates can receive help acquiring documents they lack, such as Social Security cards and ID cards, that are needed for outside functions such as obtaining a job.
He talks excitedly about programs he hopes to bring to the jail or expand to include more inmates.
“It’s a lot,” he admits about all the programs he juggles. His work has twice earned him the jail-level Civilian Employee of the Year.
Even so, he didn’t think he would receive the Civilian of the Year award at the state level.
“I didn’t think about if anyone had done any more or any less than I had,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t believe this.”
Sharpe is a member of East End Baptist Church, where he sings in the choir, and he is a member of the Suffolk Literacy Council.