Hundreds of local residents enter and leave the Blair County Prison monthly, and prison officials are taking the position that while inmates are there, they shouldn't be wasting their time.
Two programs in particular - getting a high school equivalency degree and helping women battle drug and alcohol problems - are attracting attention at the prison in Hollidaysburg, Abbie L. Tate, treatment supervisor, said.
The Altoona Area School District provides educational services at the prison, and a record number of inmates are on pace to obtain a high school equivalency degree.
Tate said that 22 inmates earned high school equivalency degrees in 2011 and 2012, but this year 10 inmates already have passed the GED exams.
Another nine inmates have passed three of the four parts of the test, meaning that by next month another nine could be added to the list of successful GED candidates. That would bring the total to 19 in just the first three months of the year, she said.
The GED program, with classes twice a week, includes 10 males and eight females this month.
Inmates in the GED program have not been ordered by the court to be there but instead want to get their degrees because it means a better chance to get a job when they are released and gives them a sense of accomplishing something while in jail, Tate said.
Also seeing heightened interest is a new women's drug and alcohol program. The previous program was on the shelf for a couple of months as Tate, in coordination with the Blair County Drug and Alcohol Program Inc., redesigned it to make it more in line with what female prisoners wanted.
There are 60 female inmates in the prison, and the new version of the drug and alcohol program is about to begin with possibly 13 female participants.
The eight-week program will discuss relapses, addiction, mental health, avoiding recidivism, self-help, parenting classes, breaking away from situations in which family members or boyfriends are using drugs and sober support networks available after inmates are released.
Judy Rosser, Drug and Alcohol Program executive director, said this week her organization has been working in the prison for a long time. A survey was done to determine what subjects the women wanted to study.
One of the issues the women want to discuss, Rosser said, involves situations in which they suffer from addition and mental health issues. She said 54 percent of the women in the jail fall into this category.
Many also face the problem of returning to homes where others in their lives are addicted, such as their boyfriends, husbands or other family members. The course will address how this situation impacts them.
The Drug and Alcohol Program also does a drug and alcohol assessment of inmates before they leave the prison and provides information so former inmates can continue services after they get out of jail.
The prison also offers Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a men's in-prison drug and alcohol program and a women's drug and alcohol pre-release program that helps prepare inmates to leave the prison.
Fourteen inmates are involved with Alcoholics Anonymous, 12 in the male drug and alcohol program and 11 in the women's pre-release program, prison statistics show.
According to prison statistics, 176 individuals were committed to the prison in January and early February.
Rosser said the programs have been developed because her office and prison officials "don't want them just sitting there."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.