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The Last Graduation

By Gregory W. Thomas, Prisoner of War in America
The graduation ceremony was about to commence as family and friends continued to enter into the designated area for the UW-Baraboo Class of '98. Graduates decked out in full gear, cap & tassel and gown, slowly preceded down two aisles as sounds of the procession music filtered through the auditorium. Straight ahead on a neat, flower decorated platform sat the Master of Ceremonies and other faculty staff.

(L to R) Marshall C. Crawford,
Gregory W. Thomas, Charles E. Perry.

Upon the graduates coming to their assigned seats in the middle row everyone in the audience stood for the invocation that was given by the Chaplain Bill Jones. The keynote speaker was Edward Thoyre, Provost & Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. He gave a very exceptional speech and the most thought provoking statement was that a students' education is whatever they make it to be. Therefore, there is no doubt that long after school has ceased, education is a lifetime process that's going to be reflected upon each student. Hopefully, those who diligently struggled to attain such an accomplishments will remain their perseverance and not allow it to become futile.

The atmosphere was permeated with joy and pride. A cameraman waited to snap pictures while the graduates walked up to receive their certificate or degree, if not both. When one of the students was handed a degree a child somewhere in the audience euphorically shouted "That's my Daddy!"

Recognition was given to those students who carried six credits or more and maintained a grade point average of 3.5 or better. Another special award was presented to three students for outstanding academic achievements. The Valedictorian spoke on the significance of continuing to acquire a post secondary education as students prepare to leave here and enter a new millennium. A final standing ovation was given to all the graduates as they proceeded back down the two aisles while the recessional music slowly faded.

Nonetheless, as nostalgic as this graduation may have appeared, it was still unusual in comparison to college graduating ceremonies that are held nation wide. This event was taking place in a location that is a microcosmic community of its own, but maintains outside purposeful contact with the macrocosmic world. This extraordinary ceremony was held at F.C.I. Oxford, which is a medium-high security prison. Therefore, those men who made a commitment to achieve higher education are federal inmates serving time for various crimes. Yet, the majority of prisoners housed there and throughout other federal prisons over the last ten years, are nonviolent criminals. Unfortunately, the consensus of today's society is that criminals are too incorrigible and not capable of being rehabilitated.

Those men made wrong choices that resulted in their freedom being taken away. However, a far wiser decision was made in not allowing their minds to become imprisoned. Needless to say, if no one put forth the effort to acknowledge these positive accomplishments of criminals, the public will continue to embrace such misconceptions and be oblivious to inmates' capacity for rehabilitation.

Where are they now­­the U.S. prosecutors, the law enforcement agencies, the politicians, and the news media, who happen to be the most notorious sources of untrue propaganda? Why aren't they informing the public that conclusive studies have shown that both society and inmates will benefit from education, as well as substance abuse treatment?

Mandatory minimum education and vocational policies should take the place of mandatory sentences. The only education currently required of inmates is the Adult Basic Learning Education (ABLE), which is commensurate to that of an eighth-grade education. This is of no significance in helping to reform an individual, and is more detrimental to the communities in which prisoners will eventually return. When individuals are incarcerated for over a year, it's more than ample time to obtain some educational or vocational skills, or substance abuse treatment.

Those individuals successfully completing any of the aforementioned programs should be given a reduction in sentence. Therefore, anyone unwilling to participate need not be considered for early release to a halfway house. The Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, and others in authority have a responsibility to insure that the general public isn't being miseducated but educated on the rehabilitation of criminals.

Since 1989, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state prisons started to cut back on educational and vocational programs. Furthermore, in 1992, Congress passed a bill which stopped inmates from receiving Pell grants and other financial assistance. Now there is a financial void resulting in a tremendous cut in the prison college programs.

A recent survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), revealed that 61% of state and 44% of federal prisoners had less than 4 years of high school. Meanwhile, a high percentage of inmates' minds will stagnate before completing their mandatory minimum sentences, due to continual idleness, as well as waste the taxpayers' money.

Incarceration can be effective without continuing to build more prisons, and making more acrimonious and unjust laws. Of course any dilemma which afflicts society as a whole is going to always be those proclaiming to have the overall panacea. However, we need not look far or complicate matters that can often be solved in a rudimentary form. The late Malcolm X often spoke of struggling with illiteracy while incarcerated and he eventually became a world renown self-taught educator. How ironic that one of Malcolm's greatest messages is either the least known or the less wholeheartedly embraced.

"Education is our passport to the future­­for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today."

Although the criminal justice system has given up on us, we haven't given up on ourselves, because we weren't born criminals, just fallible humans. There can be no dispute as myself and the other graduates here in prison having endured various obstacles to achieve educational goals that are going to be utilized in acclimating back into society. To assist in this transition of becoming functional, there's going to be a need for adequate jobs, support groups, and constructive programs, Nonetheless, politicians are so caught up with categorizing and lambasting criminals, none of them want to come witness the steps we've taken to change our lives for the better. Whereas at various intervals in life, we all either inadvertently or purposely make the wrong decisions which can cause years of grief. Of course, if each of us had our druthers, we would change things in our past. But since this is impossible we have to focus on rectifying our negative thinking, which led us to make the wrong choices.

Sure laws serve a vital function in society and anyone breaking the law deserves to be punished, but when carried to extremes, they create a far worse problem.

The contrivance of being socially alienated affects a great proportion of inmates and as a result, the recidivism rate rises instead of being alleviated. Wherefore, nonviolent offenders aren't so recalcitrant or a threat to society that mandate being incarcerated for over a decade to be rehabilitated. Overall, just prison alone isn't sufficient to effect a change in criminal behavior. This is why it's imperative that the focal point be for more individuals to graduate from prison with an educational degree, vocational skill or substance abuse treatment.

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