One of the highlights of college teaching was the commencement each spring. Faculty joined university administrators to don academic regalia, exchanging joyful conversation at the end of another academic year. Watching the graduates march in behind us was special as we reflected on their accomplishments the past four years. They had made sacrifices to achieve this milestone, many of them working extra jobs to pay for tuition, books, and fees. Commencement is also a celebration for their parents, most of whom had offered emotional and financial support for their proud graduates. (The university president never failed to congratulate the parents along with the student graduates!)
Two weeks ago I participated in a different graduation. I drove past the university campus to another state institution. The old “St. Cloud Reformatory” has a lot in common with the State University on the other side of the Mississippi River. St. Cloud State celebrates its 150th anniversary this year (1869) and the prison opened just 20 years later (1889). Both were built from the nearby solid rock quarries that give the “Granite City” its name. They are among the largest employers in the city.
The similarities end as I enter the imposing Gothic structure. No academic regalia. In place of pleasant conversation among faculty I am greeted by a Correctional Officer behind bars, where I surrender my driver’s license and immediately remove my belt and car keys before walking through a metal detector. No cell phones allowed in here. There’ll be no “selfies” to capture the moment in this graduation.
Once through the metal detector and double entrance gates I’m escorted by the Prison Chaplain down long corridors, past cell blocks, more security gates and watchful correctional officers monitoring movement of inmates and visitors. Shortly after our arrival at the prison chapel our “graduates” begin arriving from their cell blocks.
No academic caps and gowns, no graduation march to the classical “Pomp and Circumstance”—but the small group of participants in the “Prison Fellowship Reentry” program begin arriving. Smiles on their faces and a bounce in their steps belie the reality of this secure, solemn prison environment. Today they’ll be recognized for completing the ten-week “Change Plan” class. For most this was not their first prison sentence. They had tried and failed to stay straight. They needed help, better self-awareness and the “tools” to make a satisfactory adjustment to the “free world” again.
A different graduation, a different place, and a different diploma. But it brings me as much joy as seeing college students graduate. These “graduates” are convicted felons, most of them racial and ethnic minorities, from families and neighborhoods that faced difficult challenges. They take responsibility for their crimes (a course requirement !) and are determined to do better. Most of them have never received a diploma. This day they received a certificate and diploma signed by the chaplain and the three of us who led the group as Prison Fellowship Volunteers. The smiles on their faces showed a sense of pride and accomplishment. Just like a “real graduation!”