While she spends every late afternoon and evening as the successful coach of the Sinclair women’s basketball team, the early part of her day is committed to guiding another team at the high-security women’s state prison off Germantown Pike.
She’s the site supervisor for the Sinclair Community College educational program at DCI and, as such, works daily with the students, professors and other support staff involved there.
The junior college offers a variety of job-focused classes at seven Ohio prisons and this year has 1,300 student inmates enrolled. Among the 900 prisoners at DCI, 110 are taking Sinclair classes in hopes of earning certificates and one day, upon their release, being able to use those transferable credits to get an associate’s degree at the school should they desire.
“Education is the key to helping our women transition and become better, more productive citizens when they return to their communities,” said DCI warden Wanza Jackson-Mitchell.
She said Jones is a major part of that effort at her facility:
“Just as she does with her players on the basketball court, she impacts women inside our facility with her individual interactions each day. She’s a role model who provides another example of showing women what they can do in life.
Cheryl Taylor, who is Sinclair’s prison program coordinator of advanced learning and oversees the college’s academic efforts at all seven confinement facilities, praised Jones, as well.
“Coach Jones is someone who really cares about her students. You can see it on the basketball court and how she interacts with her players,” said Taylor, a regular spectator at Tartan Pride games.
“And she’s showing that same concern with her students at DCI. Her voice resonates with them. She has something to share. She’s overcome great obstacles in her life and she’s helping the students see they can, too.
“When the women leave her office, they know she wants the very best for them. And I don’t think a lot of them have had many cheerleaders in their lives.
“That’s what we are for them. We all want them to live the lives they were meant to live.”
Growing up in West Dayton in a tough economic situation and a fractured home life, Jones beat those odds, some early educational miscues and even her size — she’s 5-foot-3 — to become a Dean’s List student with a 3.5 grade-point average at St. Catherine College, a tiny Catholic school in Kentucky, a deadly 3-point shooter for the University of Dayton women’s team and then a college coach.
She ascended to the NCAA Division I ranks before returning home some three years ago to care for her mother, who was diagnosed with Stage II lung cancer. Soon after, Sinclair athletics director Jeff Price convinced her to take over the women’s basketball program when Marcus Stewart was fired with seven games left on the 2014-15 schedule
She quickly stabilized the program and last season her Pride team went 23-8. With Saturday’s victory, her team is 4-2 this season.
But coaching at Sinclair is not like running the women’s programs at the University of Dayton or Wright State. There are no six-figure contracts. Few outside perks.
That often means taking another job and she worked as a substitute school teacher in Trotwood and then taught middle school science at the Richard Allen Academy. Last July the job opened at DCI and she was a great fit.
But running the Sinclair educational effort at DCI and coaching the Tartan Pride is a monumental task during hoops season.
The other day, for instance, she began work at the prison at 7 a.m., finished up just after 3 p.m. coached her Pride to a 74-39 victory over the Cedarville University JV team that evening and didn’t get back home until 10:15 p.m.
“I got this little Fitbit watch,” she laughed. “I used to average about 3,000 steps a day. Then I got the job out here at DCI and now I’m over 17,000 every day.
“Oh well, like some people say, ‘You can sleep when you’re dead.’ ”
Behind the doors
Warden Jackson-Mitchell had one fervent wish the other day:
“I hope you get a chance to see some of the amazing things that happen behind the fence.”
She believes a lot of people have misconceptions about her facility:
“People watch a lot of TV, but inside the prison it’s not TV. There are a lot of productive things going on, a lot of life-changing things going on.”
To show some of that, Jones met me just beyond the electronic doors.
“C’mon, let’s walk and talk,” she said.
We passed a line of women inmates waiting to get in the commissary. And there were a couple of people already in the beauty salon, but the real activity was around the series of classrooms and workshops where scores of women were involved in all kinds of learning.
There were some GED classes, including an especially-engaged math class run by Professor Kunle Akerele. There was a trade school class — Heat and Ventilation Air Conditioning/Refrigeration — taught by Glenn Walker and, on this morning. had women repairing ice machines, refrigerators and air conditioners.
And then there were all the Sinclair classes, including a business law session that was being beamed via TV to all seven prisons at the same time.
An Introduction of Addictive Illnesses class was being taught by Sinclair professor Kelly Brown and on this day had a guest speaker who had everyone’s attention as he spoke about his own addiction and the Findlay Street-based FOA (Families of Addicts) recovery support program of which he is a part.
Nearby, a computer lab was filled with women typing papers, preparing power point presentations and reviewing classwork.
As you went from classroom to classroom, you witnessed the flip side to a disturbing report issued by the Corrective Institute Inspection Committee, a legislative group that inspected the prison in June and found inmate violence was up 87.5 percent during 2016 from the year before and staff assaults had jumped from nine to 27.
One of the keys to redirecting antisocial behavior — both in the street and behind the prison fence — is inmate education and their gaining the tools that promote better self-esteem and more opportunities in life.
Taylor offered some sobering statistics.
“They say in Ohio the average grade attainment at the time of going to prison is a little over seventh grade. And 80 percent don’t have a verified high school diploma. Just 35 percent of inmates had a job when they went to prison.”
All that can be a recipe for failure. Sometimes it leads to a lifelong downward spiral, but other times, Jones said, ‘’it can just be a person having one bad day that costs them a lot of years.”
A study by the RAND Corporation has found that when inmates participate in education the odds of recidivism are reduced by 43 percent. That can save Ohio taxpayers millions of dollars in incarceration expenses each year and defuses the criticism some have about the cost of an education program in prison.
One recent study found that it cost Sinclair $1,950 a year to educate an inmate. Conversely, a 2010 survey found that the average incarceration cost in Ohio was $24,780.
“Some people don’t like the fact that we pay for them to go to school,” Jones said. “But as my boss reminds me, that’s going to be somebody who lives in your community, is around your children and grandchildren, someone you pass in Walmart.”
To help make the program more successful, Sinclair has certain requirements.
To participate, inmates must be within five years of release or at least a probation hearing. They must have the equivalent of a high school diploma, may not have more than two disciplinary actions in a calendar year and cannot have more than one unexcused absence for their entire course load in a 12-week class period.
The student inmates — who have a 93.5 percent completion rate of their classes and get their certificates at a cap-and-gown graduation ceremony — take those rules seriously, Jones said:
“One of my students had pneumonia last week. She had a follow-up doctor’s appointment today, but she came to me this morning and said, ‘I can’t miss Ms. Brown’s class. Can you call and get the doctor’s appointment changed, Ms. Jones?’ She put the class ahead of everything else.”
As she attends to the myriad needs of the teachers, students and Sinclair itself, Jones said she’s had just one serious run-in with a student, a vocal confrontation in a lab that got a rise from her, as well.
“They don’t get to see Coach Jones out here,” she shrugged. “But that day Coach Jones showed up.”
True role model
A couple of decades or so ago, when Jones was a standout point guard at Patterson Co-op — she was a four-year starter who twice won all-city honors — I remember talking to two people who had watched her grow up.
“V.J. definitely had obstacles to overcome in her life,” said Loretta Williams a former Alter and Trotwood coach who was a family friend. “Poverty, a broken home, some other things — put another person in that situation and they would have crumbled.”
Her high school coach, Grant Clark, saw the same resolve when Jones blossomed in her junior college foray and landed a UD scholarship when few inner-city Dayton girls ever did.
“This is such a positive thing,” Clark said. “Girls in this city here can look to her and see a life that exemplifies what they should be. She shows what you can do no matter what obstacles are in front of you.”
Following her 2001 graduation, she was a head coach at Cincinnati State, spent five years as an assistant at Murray State, a year as the head coach at Division III Eureka College in Illinois and now into her third full season at Sinclair.
“She holds us to high expectations,” said the Pride’s 6-foot sophomore Aaryn Evans, who, like teammate Madison Connally-Banks, is fielding offers to four-year schools next season. “She sees things in us we don’t see in ourselves.”
While Jones had flirted with the idea of getting back to a four-year school after her mother passed away last Valentine’s Day, she now says:
“God had a different plan.”
And though she is a cheerleader for the women at DCI, she’s still a coach, too, and those two worlds came together when she was directed to an inmate named Sharvonne by corrections officer Quaneshia Fleming, a former college player herself, who had coached the DCI women’s team and is now a Sinclair assistant.
Sharvonne, soon to be 27, won all-state honors at Columbus East High in 2008. According to published reports, she later was in a car with a guy who robbed another man and shot him in the leg.
Now at DCI, she played on the prison’s basketball team and, with the arrival of Jones at the facility, she dreamed of one day playing college ball. And she emphatically stated her case when she put on a scoring show in a DCI game that Jones attended with her entire Sinclair team.
With Sharvonne scheduled to be released in February, Jones offered her a place on her team.
But there was one problem. She lacked a high school diploma
With the help of DCI guidance counselor Kier Smith, she finally completed the classes she needed to get her GED.
“Talk about a success story,” Smith said proudly. “She had thought it wasn’t possible before, but when she got her GED, she cried like a 2-year-old.”
Jones said her reaction was the same: “When they emailed me that she finally had done it, we cried, too.”
To prepare her for the rigors of college, Jones now has her taking 12 hours of college classwork this term.
“You try to keep your personal feelings out of it here and keep the boundaries in check,” Jones said. “If you internalized everything it would get the best of you. But you’re human and compassion comes into it.
“You just want to make sure you don’t fail these women. They’ve already had a lot of disappointment in the lives. You want to do whatever you can to make sure they can be the best they can be and never come back here once they leave.”
That’s not coach-speak.
That’s the sound of a cheerleader.