Two days ago, 19 young women made history by becoming the first inmates in the state of Georgia to receive high school diplomas while incarcerated. Their graduation was described as “the best thing that’s ever happened at Lee Arrendale State Prison.” I am so very proud of them and of the opportunity I had to teach in this pilot program at the prison.
A collaborative effort between the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Mountain Education Charter High School, where I am employed as a Social Studies teacher, the pilot program proved to be a success. Within a period of just over six months, these 19 students were able to complete state requirements for a high school diploma. Most had given up hope of ever receiving a high school diploma. Some had dropped out of high school prior to ending up in prison. Others had been juveniles (under the age of 17) at the time their crimes were committed, and their schooling had been interrupted. (For a juvenile to be sentenced as an adult and be incarcerated in an adult prison, the crime had to be a very serious one.)
The graduation ceremony was attended by representatives from the Georgia Governor’s Office and officials from the Department of Corrections and Mountain Education Charter High School. There were introductory statements by several people including the prison warden, and there was a keynote speech by the Department of Corrections Assistant Commissioner for Education. Local news media were present, and I was told that at least one international news organization sent reporters as well. News videos of the event can be seen here:
Channel 11 (11 Alive), the NBC news affiliate from Atlanta, was quick to point out on the late evening news that night that the class valedictorian (who has been incarcerated since she was 16 years old) was the subject of extended reporting when she and her sister committed their violent crime. But we already knew that, just as we teachers knew the reasons almost all of our students and classroom aides were imprisoned. Quite a few are there for murder or other violent crimes.
But all that aside, the graduation was a joyous affair, a day for prison inmates to celebrate their accomplishments with everything an American high school graduation includes: a formal procession in, wearing their caps and gowns and senior class rings; a speech by the valedictorian, the top graduate in the class; receiving their diplomas with family members present; throwing their caps in the air as the ceremony ended; and being able to eat heaping plates-full of food, catered in from the “outside world” and served buffet-style with a beautiful graduation cake for dessert.
Security at the event was extremely tight, and photography was strictly regulated. The following photos all come from the Georgia Department of Corrections Facebook page… (click on photos to view in a larger format)
Each graduate was allowed to have two adult family members as guests, plus her own biological children. At least one graduate had not seen her parents since she was incarcerated two years ago. Another had no family members who would or could attend, and she was supported by the family of a former prison cellmate who came in her honor. I am aware of only one graduate who had no one there to see her receive her diploma, but she was all smiles anyway.
Our teachers’ aides, all of whom are prison inmates, were allowed to attend the ceremony as were all of the non-graduating students currently enrolled in the program. Seeing their peers accomplish this goal did inspire the other students. After the ceremony, several said they were now going to strive to be the valedictorian of the next graduating class!