These days at the county jail, inmate Cora Beth Yon Bass looks in the mirror and is pleased to see that her pupils are dilated.
But it’s not from drugs.
Rather, it’s a physiological reaction in her eyes to a change in her psychology, a sign that she is excited and attracted to the processes going on inside her brain.
Yon has learned all about this in her psychology class at the jail with instructor Stacie DeVaughn, and she knows exactly why her pupils are reacting that way - the process of education.
It’s a process begun last fall that culminated in a graduation ceremony Tuesday evening for her and best friend Amy Anderson, with each of the young women earning a high school diploma.
“It’s my new addiction,” Yon said. “I don’t need drugs, I need this.”
It hasn’t always been this way for Yon and Anderson, far from it.
Yon quit Apalachicola Middle School at age 14, when she got pregnant while still in the seventh grade, and left school a couple months later. She was able to leave school early back then, in 2001, because of her pregnancy.
“I worked, I stayed at home, I broke the law,” she said.
For Anderson, who lost her mom while young, she had been a straight A student at Brown Elementary but ended up quitting school at 16 to work in a fast food restaurant. She lived with her dad in Apalachicola, where she was homeschooled at Central Christian Academy, but it didn’t lead to a diploma.
Anderson too embarked on a life riddled with drugs.
“I got on drugs really bad, doing all the wrong things,” said Yon, pretty much speaking for the both of them. “Everybody else was doing it and so I did it too.”
Both young women, Yon’s 31 and Anderson a few years older, spent time in state prison, racking up state time for drug-related felonies, accentuated with assaults and thievery.
They each first tried to earn their GEDs while in state custody but it led nowhere.
Yon failed it, struggling with math, and so did Anderson, her stumbling block English and social studies.
“You had to do four blocks at one time,” said Yon. “The only thing I had an issue with was math; everything else was easy. Now it’s all college ready. Back then it was simple. Now you’ve got to put an arm and a leg into it.
“I don’t believe I had the motivation then that I had now. It was a mandatory thing, something I had to do. I was young; I really didn’t care about it,” Yon said.
“It (education in the county jail) has been a life changer, education is what changed me,” she said.
“Since October, ever since I was clean, getting an education has completely changed my outlook on life and doing drugs. It’s like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Yon said.
“I know there are better things out there for me than drugs and street life,” she said. “Conversations aren’t the same any more. If it’s going negative, I’m fixing to end it right now.”
In fact, Yon wears earplugs most of the time at the jail, which she’s hoping to exit by October, to shut out these sort of harmful talks.
“The only time I take them out is at school and work. I had to make this change for me,” she said. “Education has been my rehab. This is going to build my future.”
Yon had four children and Anderson a daughter, and both say their kids have been their biggest supports, and each woman makes sure to talk with them every day.
Yon’s longterm goal is to study mortuary science as she is committed to reducing the cost of funerals, and creating affordable cemetery plots.
“What’s really influenced me is seeing my loved ones were not treated with respect and dignity after they passed. They still deserve that,” she said.
Anderson wants to earn her associate’s degree and become a paralegal, and after that perhaps a lawyer. “I have to get my civil rights back first,” she said.
Increasingly, business owners and state licensing boards are willing to lift the traditional restrictions on felons being hired or securing licensure, provided they can establish that their lives are fully turned around.
“They want to know if you’re going to live without drugs,” said Yon. “You can explain to their face, and they can see it. It usually doesn’t make a difference.”
Anderson said businesses often would rather deal with someone who’s been there, done that, and has turned their lives around. “They know that a person with a felony who gets a job, is more appreciative of it,” she said.
Yon said she has met several fellow inmates who already have their high school degree or even a college education, but who still can’t shake the scourge of a drug habit.
She said she kept seeing people in and out of jail, and resolved she wanted out of that revolving door. “That was me not long ago. I said ‘this has got to stop.’ It’s got to stop somewhere,” she said.
“You have to change people, place and things,” she said. ““I know without a shadow of a doubt I’m going to bigger and better places.
“As long as I know how to deal with the situation, I should be okay,” Yon said.
DeVaughn, who teaches ESE at the high school along with duties as an instructor at the jail, has several other students, including six young men, who are slowly growing accustomed to the demands of education.
“The difference with them (Yon and Anderson) is their motivation to learn, and grow,” she said. “That’s the difference.”
The county school district’s adult education program funds her salary, as well as for that of the guards and curriculum materials, and the sheriff’s office provides the laptops and the classroom.
“We’re thankful to the superintendent for allowing us to extend the adult education to the jail,” DeVaughn said. “Sheriff A.J. Smith and Major Tommy Summerhill, the jail administrator, have been very supportive and I’m appreciative of that.”
She said Capt. David Varnes has been a driving force behind the program, making sure the building was refurbished for the GED services, which ended the program being placed inside the jail, where it was often noisy and distracting.
"Nobody could concentrate,” she said. “This is a more positive environment.”
The students use the EdX platform to take courses, such as “The Psychology of Personal Growth,” and “Critical Thinking and Problem Solving.” Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, edX is an online learning destination that offers high-quality courses from the world’s best universities and institutions to learners everywhere.
DeVaughn said Deputy Lee Segree schedules the guards for the education program, Willie Nichols, Francis Coulter and Latrina Lockley, all of whom try to go the extra mile to be sure classes are held.
In addition, Segree works to secure donations to help cover the additional tuition and test costs that oftentimes inmates cannot afford. Those costs are $28.50 per semester, three semesters a year. Plus each test is $32, and there are four of them, with a $12 fee for retakes.
Smith said that in addition to the current GED program, he’s working to bring an expansion to vocational, even college, courses for county inmates.
“We appreciate the partnership with the Franklin County Schools to bring high school equivalencies to our inmates,” he said. “We’re hopeful we’re able to help these people be productive parts of the community and live with their families and provide for them and have a better quality of life.”
Following their graduation ceremony Tuesday, at which they spoke about a concept that impacted their life, and enjoyed a special dinner afterwards, both Yon and Anderson say they are confident their educations will continue “as long as I have a school to go to, and Miss Stacy.”
Yon added, with a giggle, that she also has another educational priority on her agenda.
“They’re going to help me lose weight, and I’m going to help them lose weight,” she said.