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Jail offers lessons in a better life

David Hornberger drank for it, smoked for it, snorted cocaine for it. He has spent many of his 36 years chasing a high.

Hornberger said the chase first led him to jail when he was 18 years old, and a litany of criminal charges have followed, including possession of cocaine and petty theft. He dropped out of school when he was in 11th grade and said he could never hold a job for long, never keep a girlfriend for long, never stay off drugs for long.

Hornberger, who has been in the Hernando County Jail for nine months, believes it will be different when he walks out of jail in the coming weeks. Several months ago, he passed the GED test and earned his high school equivalency certificate, which he hopes will help him get a job.

"I think about all the times I've had chances, and I've started drinking, and lost a job, and blamed someone else," Hornberger said. "I can just feel it _ I'm not going to be so wild and crazy this time. This time, I'll have a better attitude. I think it will be different."

Every year, about 60 inmates pass the GED exam at the Hernando County Jail, a number jail officials hope will increase with a new program offered by Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that runs the Hernando jail and 62 others in 21 states.

In coming months, the jail will connect to a new distance learning program that will offer tutorials in math and English for inmates trying to pass the GED. They will be able to tune into classes that focus on specific subjects, such as geometry or algebra, by watching televisions inside the jail.

Currently, dozens of community volunteers enter the jail every week and help inmates study for the test. The new distance learning program will supplement the work of volunteers by allowing inmates more time to focus on trouble spots, such as fractions or factoring, said warden Kevin Watson.

Watson said he planned to show the recorded programs in the jail's activity room, where inmates take courses. Eventually, Watson said, he hopes to beam the programs on academics or life skills into the nine televisions hanging in dorms or pods throughout the facility.

Anyone interested could pick up a schedule, pull up a chair and learn, he said. The jail is waiting for CCA to send the equipment and will then begin the distance learning program, Watson said.

"We're trying to make the inmates better people," Watson said. "These programs give them the tools they need to survive on the outside _ a high school diploma, knowing how to apply for jobs."

Courses offered will include lessons on adjectives and adverbs, creative essays, decimals, graphs, physics and biology. Other classes will focus on stress management, raising healthy kids and keeping jobs.

Distance learning in jails is financed by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and provided by a group called the Corrections Learning Network. The network has paired up with CCA to help prepare inmates for life after incarceration.

CCA is installing satellite equipment in about 27 of its facilities and will start hooking up the Hernando jail, and others across the country, in the next several months, said Tom Shaw, the company's manager of educational services.

Tom Johnson, 24, has been in jail for 10 months for charges including attempted robbery. He recently passed the GED test and got the highest score in the jail's history, according to jail officials.

Johnson, who is called "Shorty" by other inmates and jail staff, said he dropped out of school in the eighth grade because teachers frequently told him he was stupid. He said in jail, volunteers let him pursue his education on his own terms and encouraged him gently.

Johnson said he discovered that he enjoyed learning; he said he had never worked harder than studying for the GED.

"I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I pretty much screwed that up with the felonies," Johnson said.

He said offering courses through distance learning will only benefit inmates who need help ordering their lives.

Johnson said his personality has changed after taking the life skills classes offered at the jail. He used to be angry and uncooperative, Johnson said, but has calmed.

"I always had a mean, nasty look on my face," Johnson said. "I'm pretty content now."

He said he does not know exactly when he will be released from jail, but he plans a new start when he walks out.

"I'm not sure about the vet thing, but we'll see," he said.

_ Staff writer Jamie Jones covers law enforcement and the courts in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to jjonessptimes.com.

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