Negative into positive: Inmate uses incarceration to complete high school

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

At this point, Angela Hyde’s life is kind of on hold. She doesn’t know exactly when it will resume and, when it does, what course it will take.

Regardless, she’s planning for the future and she’s excited about the possibilities.

“I figured I’d make this time worth something,” she said, smoothing down the front of the orange and white Itawamba County Jail inmate uniform. “A lot of people don’t put much importance in finishing high school, but I do. Everybody needs a high school diploma or GED … even if it’s just to have accomplished something.”

Hyde, 33, did just that … just did that, in fact. Three weeks ago, while incarcerated, Hyde passed her high school equivalency exam and earned her GED. She’s the first in the jail’s history to have done so and she’s rightfully proud of the accomplishment, despite its surrounding circumstances.

Hyde has been incarcerated for the past year, awaiting trial for depraved heart murder — a charge that has her facing potentially life-long imprisonment. It’s the kind of thing that could eat a person alive, emotionally.

But Hyde, who dropped out of school in eighth grade in order to enter the workforce, said she wanted to take the free time jail afforded her and transform a bad situation into something positive.

It’s that kind of thinking that was behind the decision to begin offering tutoring to inmates in the first place.

“Most people come in here feeling like they’re nothing,” said Jail Administrator Vicky Russell. Adamant in her belief that time in jail can make a positive difference in a person’s life, Russell said she was excited about working with the local non-profit group The Itawamba Learning Center to offer tutoring to inmates interested in getting their high school equivalency degrees.

“You have so many people who come in here with negative attitudes … like they can’t do anything other than break the law,” Russell said. “Maybe if they can get an education out of being here, they’ll leave feeling more positive about their lives, and they can go from there. If something positive can come out of being arrested, that would be fine.”

Hyde said she jumped at the opportunity.

“I like to read; I like to learn; I like to finish what I start,” she said. “I thought maybe I could brush up and get my degree.”

Lesson one: Some things are easier said than done.

“I was pretty rusty,” she admitted of resuming her studies. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school. Math was the hardest … I forgot what algebra was like.”

But she wasn’t alone. Itawamba Learning Center volunteer Pat Thorn tutored her and another inmate — who hasn’t passed her final exam quite yet, but is working on it — two hours each week, guiding them in their lessons.

“[Thorn] was really good and very encouraging,” Hyde said. That is, in spite of all the homework she provided.

That’s right: Homework.

“People can be noisy in here,” Hyde said. “That can make it kind of difficult to study.”

But as the two students worked, they also inspired.

“A lot of the other girls saw what we were doing and really liked the idea,” she said. “It made a lot of others in here want to get their GEDs.

“That felt good,” she added with a smile. That change of attitude can make a big difference in a place like jail.

“Can you imagine being in a place like this?” Russell asked. “You’re holed up in here, surrounded by walls. You feel like you can’t accomplish anything when you wind up in a place like this.”

“But you don’t have to just sit and sit while you’re in here,” Russell said. “You can do something productive with your time.”

Now that she has her degree — and a nice-sized scholarship to Itawamba Community College — Hyde is planning for the future, whenever it starts. She’d like to go into some sort of counseling work, working with at-risk kids and helping guide them down the right path.

“I’d like to show people that it’s not only your choices that matter, but the choices of the people around you that hurt you and your loved ones,” she said. It’s a lesson she said she learned the hard way; she wants to save others the trouble.

It’s a good goal for her, Russell believes. Perhaps, even more important than that, it’s given her something to celebrate and something else to anticipate — a landmark over her shoulder and another in the distance.

“No matter what happens next, she’s got this behind her,” Russell said. “That opens up doors.”

Or, perhaps, it already has.

adam.armour@journalinc.com