All across the country, students are returning to school, and in Pittsburgh, that includes youth housed at the Allegheny County Jail. The jail runs a full high school for juveniles charged as adults.
There are about a dozen juveniles currently enrolled at the school, which is called the Academic Institute and run by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. An officer keeps watch over the students’ movements, and in the classrooms, a red tape barrier separates them from the teacher’s desk.
But otherwise, the space, tucked inside the jail, feels like a standard school. There are desks and white boards in the classrooms, and murals in the hallway, including one of the class mascot: a phoenix.
In his welcoming remarks on the first day of school, Principal Jay Moser told the students that, in all the important ways, the institute is like any other high school.
“In this building, in this part of the building, you are a student,” Moser said. “You’ll be treated like a student. You’ll be expected to act like a student. And you will be a student.”
Clad in tan uniforms, the students listened attentively as Moser outlined the rules and expectations for the new year. They know this could be one of the few chances to show they really want something different out of life.
“When you’re in school and you’re learning, you have control,” Moser said. “‘I can participate. I can listen. I can read. I can write. I have control,’ in a place that gives you very little control.”
The students are in the jail because they’re being tried as adults for serious crimes such as murder, rape and robbery. On average, students have been incarcerated at the jail for eight months. Most come from Allegheny County, but a few were transferred from other counties.
“There’s no criticism here”
Pennsylvania law requires jails and prisons to educate minors consistent with state standards. While some jails tutor students in their cells or have them do worksheets, the nine teachers at the jail’s school see their students in separate classrooms.
The institute’s students can earn a diploma from their home district or Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Brashear High School.
Kristian, a 16-year-old who has been in jail for about a year, said going to school is freeing in a way. (The county does not allow incarcerated juveniles to share their last names.)
“It makes me feel like I’m not in jail,” Kristian said. “I actually feel like I’m outside instead of being in jail. Takes away the bars and all that.”
Kristian said he didn’t used to like school at all. But now he finds it exciting and works hard. He said his teachers are a big reason for his new mentality.
“They really talk to me and really understand where I’m coming from, even though they didn’t come where I came from,” Kristian said. “There’s no criticism here. That’s my favorite thing about it.”
Kristine Autenreith has taught at the jail for nine years. On the first day of school, she asked the five students in her English class to write some facts about themselves to share with their classmates.
It’s a school rule not to talk about criminal cases, but Autenreith says reading literature and writing poetry can compel students to confront their pasts.
“That always brings out a lot of emotions,” Autenreith said. “The students are very forthcoming, and it’s wonderful. They’re very honest. They’re very raw.”
Despite students’ histories, Autenreith said the school has a good learning environment, compared to other places where she’s taught.
“There are disciplinary issues and sometimes of a different magnitude or a different type” inside the jail, Autenreith said. “But for the most part, I think these students are even better behaved.”
The students also have a counselor who helps them to reflect on how their circumstances and decisions landed them behind bars, and how they might stop that from happening again.
Motivation to stay out of trouble
Chad, 16, says school is more engaging at the jail, but his case is never far from his mind.
“I want all the stuff I do here to – my judge to see and show him I’m not trying to be in jail no more,” Chad said. “Hopefully, it helps. That way I can get back into the real world.”
Chad and other students have dreams of going to college, and they say school motivates them to stay out of trouble once they’re released.
But two in five students will leave the jail program and end up in juvenile detention or prison. The majority will age out to the jail’s adult population at age 18.
At that point, students can no longer attend the classes. Instead, they can work toward a high school diploma through a program where instructors give them weekly assignments and work with them on their housing pod, where their cells are located. Inmates can also request to enter the jail’s adult education program, where they can earn their general education diploma, or GED.
Principal Moser acknowledged that his students arrive with more baggage than one might find in other classrooms.
“Trauma, emotional issues, struggles in school,” Moser said, “and then we try to piece together this great thing that we do – and we do it really well – and then hope that’s enough.”