The student honorees who attended an academic awards ceremony in Richmond last week listened attentively as the principal spoke. They heard him say he was proud of their perseverance and their achievements in assorted fields of study.
They all would receive certificates, he said, because it's important to celebrate success. And when he asked them to give themselves a round of applause, the attendees complied enthusiastically.
If they hadn't been wearing matching jumpsuits, you might never have known the students were inmates at Contra Costa's West County Detention Facility.
Some were honored for their work in independent studies, others for computer applications and Web design. Three received General Education Development (GED) degrees. Ten had completed ministry classes.
For those who wonder if our penal system is too focused on incarceration to bother with rehabilitation, the scene was a welcome revelation. The Sheriff's Office and the county Office of Education have worked together for years in offering adult education to inmates in all county jails, but the program's success goes largely unnoticed because it happens behind locked doors and razor-wire fences.
"The long-term goal," said adult education Principal Tom Scruggs, "is to build academic skills, vocational skills and personal development to prepare them for re-entry into the community."
After each of several honored inmates spoke about the impact the experience had on them, the warm applause of shared appreciation echoed off the walls of the meeting room.
The classes are optional, Facility Commander Lieutenant Scott Haggard said, estimating that more than 20 percent of inmates participate. They generally take one morning and one afternoon class, spanning more than six hours a day.
The DEUCE program (Deciding, Educating, Understanding, Counseling, Evaluating), which focuses on drug and alcohol rehabilitation, is particularly popular. A huge segment of the jail's population has addiction problems.
Stacie Gaskins, serving eight months for commercial burglary, said she'd been addicted to drugs for 15 years, "going in and out of jail," before completing the 60-day DEUCE program.
"I was tired of the life I was living, but I didn't know how to change. I've learned how to schedule my life and maintain my sobriety. I'm no longer in denial about my addiction."
Gaskins, a 34-year-old mother of four, earned her GED degree last month and hopes to enroll in college after her release and become a nurse or an X-ray technician.
Damoni Duncan, 34, a DEUCE graduate, said alcohol was his torment.
"I've been arrested for driving under the influence, drunk in public, that kind of stuff," he said. "I've been in and out of jail for four years. Through this process, I now realize I could have hurt somebody. I used to drive drunk."
He is counting the days until he gets out May 31, when he will be reunited with his wife and four children. His goal is to find construction work and reclaim his family.
Adult classes run the gamut, from general studies to parenting to English as a second language. Students' educational levels are varied, including some who need remedial work to perform at a high school level. But everyone is given the same opportunity. There's a reason for that, as Haggard told the student inmates:
"We want to make sure when you leave this place you don't come back."
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.