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Jailhouse school brings singer Jelly Roll’s message of hope behind bars

<i>WNEM</i><br/>A local jail isn’t the typical concert venue for a country singer
Willingham, James
A local jail isn’t the typical concert venue for a country singer

By David Custer

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    GENESEE CO., Michigan (WNEM) — A local jail isn’t the typical concert venue for a country singer, but Jelly Roll had a personal reason for his Genesee County concert; he knows first-hand that the path out of a life of crime starts behind bars.

In a place where the odds seem stacked, a monotonous march often leads inmates to a helping of despair.

“This is the longest I’ve been in here; I’ve been in here 28 months,” said 27-year-old Shaqur Brewer.

Brewer is no stranger to the Genesee County Jail. Since turning 18, he’s been arrested several times, failing to break a pattern of crime.

“I never took the time to think about the things I like, you know, like my passion and what I feel like I am good at,” he said.

But this time, Brewer has been given an opportunity to figure that out, receiving an education while he awaits his trial on serious charges of assault, felony firearms, and manufacturing narcotics.

“Instead of doing the same thing over and over, let’s just train them while they are here,” said Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson.

He said he began recognizing a problem decades ago as he climbed the ranks to become sheriff. People like Brewer committing crimes were the same people year after year, coming back to jail shortly after being let out.

He was right. In the U.S., studies show 70 percent will re-offend within five years of being released.

“They say, ‘Here you are. Don’t come back.’ It’s impossible. So, we decided to change the culture by building it onto, ‘You do your homework, you can go out and play,’” Swanson said.

The sheriff played around with his idea of a grant-funded jailhouse school system. In 2020, he launched I.G.N.I.T.E., an acronym for “inmate growth naturally and intentionally through education.”

“I realized in the first 90 days of assessment the average math grade in jails, especially here in Flint, fifth grade. Reading, sixth grade. That’s half the people that can read, the other half can’t even read,” Swanson said.

Every weekday, educators from local schools and colleges roll into the jail, teaching high school classes with the goal of getting inmates a diploma or GED. So far, dozens have, and they are rewarded with a graduation ceremony.

But their learning doesn’t have to stop there. Inmates can take virtual reality courses in welding, plumbing, and construction, and there’s even a certified barber school.

“We pat them on the back and say, ‘You did a really good job. I’m proud of you for what you did.’ And you can see at first, they’re hesitant about that because by nature, we’re adversarial. But then they realize we’re serious about it, that we are proud of them, and they want to do more, and they want to do more,” said Major Jason Gould with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office.

He said more than half of the jail’s current inmates are enrolled in I.G.N.I.T.E.; anyone can enroll, no matter the crime.

Gould said the year before the launch in 2019, there were 360 assaults in the jail.

“The year immediately after we launched I.G.N.I.T.E., we had seven. So, it’s a big deal,” he said.

“We are rewriting every textbook that says, ‘Hey, this is the way you do things,’” said Percy Glover.

Glover rewrote his own story, which has become a guide to developing I.G.N.I.T.E.’s curriculum.

He’s not the typical administrator employed by a sheriff’s office; Glover spent more than a decade of his life in prison, convicted of manslaughter for his role in a deadly shooting.

“A lot of the same struggles you have once you’re released from jail or prison are the same ones that sent you to jail or prison,” he said.

The college graduate mentors inmates, encouraging them to take advantage of the resources and networking opportunities from I.G.N.I.T.E. As more educators and potential employers come to the jail to teach, they get to know the inmates and are more willing to give them a second chance.

“We love helping them and inspiring them to move forward and get a good education,” said Regina, who comes to teach at the jail.

“We’ve got a local manufacturer that has hired over 100 of the people right out of this jail,” Gould said.

That person – Chris Goetz – is co-president of WGS Global Services, a manufacturing company specializing in casting, machining, and assembly.

“I don’t care where you came from as long as you show up every day, you have a good attitude, and you treat us with respect,” Goetz said.

He said he employs about 75 people in the Flint area and 300 more across the country. He often sends willing I.G.N.I.T.E. grads to out-of-state locations.

“I think getting out of that element when you first get out and you get a fresh start with fresh friends, fresh, you know, scenery, your mindset will change,” Goetz said.

An unlikely advocate for I.G.N.I.T.E. was country music superstar Jelly Roll, but when you learn the recipe behind his success, the ingredients to get him to the Genesee County Jail, mixed together perfectly after Swanson sent him a video inviting him to the jail.

Jelly Roll, whose real name is Jason DeFord, sent a video back to Swanson. In December, he not only came to the jail, but he handed out certificates to graduates of the I.G.N.I.T.E. barber school, even getting a trim.

It’s personal for the country music superstar. Life locked up was all he knew, in and out of jail since age 14 for drugs, shoplifting, and robbery.

However, the birth of his daughter while he sat in prison cut him to his core. It changed everything, and he charted a new course to break his cycle.

“It might just be starting with being a good father, or a good brother, or a good son because we’ve all been a horrible son and a horrible daughter in different things,” Jelly Roll said during an I.G.N.I.T.E. ceremony.

“I think it’s cool to see vulnerability that way and that we can all grow together and just know that you can figure it out and believing that,” Jelly Roll said during an interview with CBS.

“If you’re looking at a guy like Jelly Roll, with face tattoos, it’s literally a worldwide phenomenon. Maybe that’s the one thing someone’s gonna say; ‘If he did it, I could do it,’” Swanson said.

As a place historically haunted with despair celebrates a real-life example who made it on the outside, you won’t find inmates like Shaqur Brewer wasting valuable time.

Instead, he’s using time to fuel a fire to burn down his doubt and ignite a path out of the darkness, lighting the way to a brighter future.

“Right now, I just want to get a decent job when I get home and go from there and save some money legitimately and then as far as that, probably enter business,” Brewer said.

There’s a push by the National Sheriff’s Association to offer I.G.N.I.T.E. in jails across the country.

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