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Lost Time, Found Time
Jamaal’s Path to High School Graduation and Beyond 

 

On March 8, 2018, Jamaal was arrested and taken to the Orleans Justice Center (OJC), the adult jail in New Orleans, where he was detained.  Over the next few days, he was formally charged and moved to one of the housing units.  Jamaal was 18 years old. 

Within a few days, Jamaal met with representatives from Travis Hill, the school located inside of the jail. Jamaal was under 21 and had been attending high school in the City (he had a B average, “played basketball and had an eye for psychology”) when he was arrested. So he was eligible to attend Travis Hill if he wanted to. Jamaal was struggling with the notion that he was in jail, and he wasn’t sure if the school was ‘real,’ so he didn’t sign up to attend for a couple months.  But as the summer of 2018 neared, he started to hear from other residents that Travis Hill, was a ‘real school,’ that the teachers cared, and that you actually could earn credits and graduate. And sadly, he started to realize he might be at the jail for a long time. So he enrolled.  

For the next 15 months, Jamaal made his way to school every day. It wasn’t easy.  

Jamaal would wake up at 430am in the morning, when breakfast was delivered to his cell. He’d eat quickly and go back to bed until about 730am.  Just before 800am a guard would shackle his ankles together, and lead him from his cell block to school, located on the 2nd floor of the New Orleans jail. 

Jamaal wore standard ‘prison garb’ -- an orange jumpsuit and rubber slippers. He’d wear socks and underwear, as well, but only because he had money to purchase them from the jail commissary. 

Jamaal also had to manage the fear and worry that his case brought on. He was 18 years old at the time of his alleged crime, facing adult charges, being held in an adult jail.  He was facing, based on the charging documents and what the prosecutor’s office was saying, 10 or more years in state prison. The prosecutor’s office kept offering plea deals requiring that he would plead guilty and take 5 to10 years. Jamaal didn’t want to take a plea deal.  

But he also didn’t want to stay in jail. The months dragged on. Court dates were exhausting and nearly debilitating for Jamaal, given the stakes. Jamaal describes coming back from court feeling worn out and lost.  He’d spend a whole day in court, only to have his case called and in a confusing five to ten minutes learn little more than that things had been delayed. 

Jamaal wasn’t able to see his mom or family members, since there are no in person visits at the jail.

Over the months, Jamaal kept coming to school.  He studied Hamilton and read Animal Farm, and got to study about World War II, a topic he had always been fascinated with; he learned the difference between ionic and covalent bonding, and how to solve exponential equations. He completed his FAFSA forms, and applied to college. 

He was passing his classes, accumulating credits, and earning good grades (Jamaal had a 3.4 average while at Travis Hill).  He watched other residents graduate, and he noted, “after about 3 months at Travis Hill I went to a graduation ceremony.  The Superintendent of Schools was there. It was real. That’s when it started to kick in.” Jamaal started to believe he could graduate, too. 

But Jamaal faced one additional hurdle. He had to take and pass the state-mandated end-of-course exams--in Biology, English III, and US History--in order to graduate.  In Louisiana, in addition to earning 24 credits to graduate, students also have to pass a number of state-wide, standardized exams in core subjects. Jamaal had passed some of these courses prior to being detained, but not all of them.  So, in early May he, along with many of his Travis Hill class classmates, took his state exams.

By May 20th, Jamaal’s scores had come through.  He passed all three. Test scores in hand, he proclaimed: “Nobody can say that I let coming to jail set me back. I’m graduating at the same time as my classmates.”

Jamaal was not alone.  Over 50 students passed one or more end-of-course exam last year at Travis Hill.  And like Jamaal, 12 students passed three or more end-of-course exams, enabling them to earn additional credits and accelerate their path toward graduation. 

Over the course of the year, a dozen students graduated from the Travis Hill School’s OJC campus.

Jamaal graduated on July 26th.  He was right when he said that he was going to graduate with his peers. 

Amazingly, he was released later in the day. The prosecutor agreed to significantly reduce the charges levied against him to probation solely, due to Jamaal’s accomplishments at school, his support in the community, and his plans to attend college.