Andrew Mills dropped out of school at age 16, lured by the prospect of a good-paying job in construction. He always hoped to get his diploma someday but never seemed to find the time.

Now, awaiting trial on second-degree burglary charge, the 20-year-old James Island man has nothing but time on his hands. So rather than fritter away his time in the Charleston County jail, he hunkered down, hit the books and earned his high school equivalency diploma through a joint program run by the jail and Trident Literacy Association.

Mills was one of two inmate/students to receive their GEDs on Thursday in a small ceremony at the Al Cannon Detention Center. Three others earned certificates through the WorkKeys program, which measures real-world skills that are valuable to employers and shows that a job-seeker is ready to work. Seventeen others also earned these certificates but had already left the jail.

Some 60 inmates have successfully completed the programs at the jail over the past five years, Trident Executive Director Eileen Chepenik said. This round was special, however, because Mills and fellow inmate Kenneth Dyer notched superior scores on their GED tests, placing them in the top 5 percent of students statewide taking the exam, she said.

“I hope this will help me get into the Air Force when I get out, if they’ll take me,” Mills said.

Dyer, who is facing a murder charge in connection with a June 2011 choking death in Mount Pleasant, said he hopes the GED will help him land gainful employment if he beats the charge and gets out of jail. He has a young daughter who will soon be 4, he said.

Dyer said he dropped out of school in the 11th grade because his family’s frequent moves made it difficult for him to adjust and complete his education. He had cycled through 17 different schools by the time he left for good, he said.

Dyer, who has been locked up 15 months, said he welcomed the opportunity to better himself behind bars.

“I studied a lot … If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it good,” he said. “There is not a whole lot else to do here but sit around. It’s better to be doing something with your mind rather than sitting around vegetating all day.”

There is a link between a person’s education and the likelihood of winding up in jail. A snapshot of the South Carolina’s more than 22,161 prison inmates from June shows that 56 percent did not have a high school diploma or GED, according to the State Department of Corrections web site.

Trident and jail officials had no firm count on how many inmates who complete the programs avoid a return to incarceration. Once they leave the jail, it is difficult to keep track of them, Chepenik said. Anecdotally, however, jail officials said they have seen fewer of these folks return to the detention center.

“The programs give them an opportunity they didn’t have before,” Sheriff’s Maj. Jim Brady said.

Andrew Wilson was one of those who received a WorkKeys certificate. He’s been in jail since June for failing to pay $12,000 in child support. He’s a high school graduate who worked as a car salesman and a limo driver, but he lost his job when the economy hit the skids and fell behind on his support payments.

Wilson said he hopes the certificate gives him an edge and helps him overcome the stigma of being jail. “It really is a great program.”