Graduate says online high school diploma program is helping inmates like him turn their lives around—and stay out of prison.

A recent scene at Madison Correctional Institution was not what you would expect of a state penitentiary. Eighteen men lined up to walk across a stage and shake hands with the prison’s warden as well as a superintendent of a school district. These men were 18 of the Florida Department of Corrections 22 most recent success stories—inmates who had completed their high school education from an Internet-based program offered via high-security computer workstations inside of the prison.

The program, now live at seven correctional institutions across the state, is the first of its kind. It enables inmates to complete a high school diploma plus credentialed career certificate online. Delivering the program online drastically reduces costs for the prison by eliminating the need for seat time, classroom space, and additional staffing. While security concerns have left the correctional community reluctant to adapt Internet-based programs in spite of the cost savings, Smart Horizons Career Online Education—the district that delivers the program—developed the technology to eliminate that risk.

“The program is innovative because it incorporates technology into the correctional environment and the classroom in a safe and controlled manner,” said Darlene Lumpkin, Assistant Warden at Lowell Correctional Institution, where the 100th graduate completed the program.

Smart Horizons Career Online Education is the world’s first SACS accredited online school district. The district ties career outcomes, specifically those mandated by employers, directly to the curriculum, ensuring that the content is practical, relevant, and actionable in real-world career settings. Superintendent Dr. Howard Liebman says serving the prison community was part of his vision when he started Smart Horizons Career Online Education in 2009.

“Educationally, this population has been underserved,” said Dr. Liebman. “We know that increased education is one of the most powerful tools in helping inmates establish healthy, productive lives after their release and that it’s one of the main things that keeps them from returning to prison. The benefit to society in terms of both safety and monetary savings is huge.”

The program, called FLDOC Online Campus, is available to inmates with release dates in the next few years, in order to help them acquire real-life tools and skills to be successful in jobs—and as citizens—once released. It teaches skills specific to a career certificate area, as well as generalized skills such as communication, computer, conflict resolution, and more.

“The inmates are benefiting from the program because they are receiving a high school diploma, a career certificate, and confidence,” said Assistant Warden Lumpkin. “They have now accomplished something they never thought they would. This is also the first step in order to increase their education level and attend college.”

Graduate John Keene delivered the commencement address in front of fellow inmates, family, and members of the FLDOC, three stakeholder groups that are unified in their belief that the program gives inmates a real chance for success after prison.

“I have gained knowledge from this class that will give me some options on taking a more productive and successful path in my walk of life,” said Mr. Keene.

He graduated with a certification in transportation services, which will enable him to seek employment in the trucking industry upon his release. He said a lot of people “waste time” in prison—essentially becoming a drain on public resources. The program, on the other hand, enables inmates to use the time productively, get out, and stay out.

James Ray, the Academic Teacher who oversees the FLDOC Online Campus at the Madison Correctional Institution and serves as the point person for the inmates, agreed. “Instead of just ‘serving time,’ this program lets them use that time to take advantage of opportunities that will enhance their lives.”

Mr. Keene expressed his gratitude on behalf of his fellow inmate/students, saying that people like him owe it to their families and communities to do better next time, which this program gives them the practical ability to do.

“Neither the Department of Corrections nor the State of Florida owes us anything,” he said. “So these programs they offer us are a privilege….We owe it to ourselves, our family, and society to become better people and a high school diploma is a huge step down the road to success.”