RAWLINS – It’s like any other graduation.
There’s a band. There’s a group of scholars wearing caps and gowns. There’s an audience full of family members.
The only differences: the scholars are convicted felons, while the band, dressed in the standard orange uniform courtesy of the Wyoming State Penitentiary, isn’t marching down Third Street in Laramie any time soon.
On Friday afternoon, a graduation ceremony hosted inside WSP commemorated 13 inmates who achieved either a high school diploma or a college certificate.
Through Wyoming Pathways from Prison, a University of Wyoming-supported program aimed at promoting educational opportunities for incarcerated men and women, all within the confines of WSP inmates attended and collected credits in various computer technology courses.
Amid the soon-to-be graduates, family members, prison officials and correctional officers inside a room whose windows lead to a command center and other prison hallways, inmate No. 30722 Richard Southward, who obtained 12 college credits and made the dean’s list, addressed his peers from the podium.
“It feels great to know that we’re important to somebody else besides us,” he said. “I feel like we get left behind in here a lot.”
Prior to Southward’s speech, however, WPfP cofounder and coordinator Alex Muthig conveyed a bit of a different rhetoric.
“To me and many of the people I work with, it is an honor to award anyone anywhere who is working hard in seeking knowledge, gaining new skills and embracing personal growth,” he said. “And that is what you’ve done.”
Before the ceremony, while the prison band – The Ice Cream Thieves – sang the somber lyrics, “I know I can’t be free,” from the 1957 Johnny Cash hit, “Folsom Prison Blues,” Laurie Heier, the prison’s education manager and vocational instructor, said the inmates’ college credits are certified by Central Wyoming College.
Beyond the credits, according to Wyoming DOC director Bob Lambert, many inmates who arrive into circulation are already without a high school diploma. In turn, said Lambert, the DOC gets them enrolled into a GED or high school program, so as they increase their education to a “10th grade level of functioning or above.”
This boost of education while incarcerated, according to Southward’s speech, reduces recidivism by 30 percent, while family support increases by 15 percent.
And while the statistics are substantiated per other sources, some of the family members in attendance proved that the claims are true.
For inmate No. 30741 Brent Bandy, he hadn’t seen his father, Brad Bandy, in three years. But when he received his certificate, his father was there to see it.
“It’s almost a nightmare to not know if you’re going to walk the stage alone, especially in a tough situation,” Brent said. “But (Brad) ended up driving the thousand miles from California, pretty much last minute notice. And it’s probably the best day of my life. I’ve been looking forward to this a long time.”
According to Brent, it’s better to have a memory of succeeding than it is to have a memory of failing. His father agreed.
“I’ve been saving money just so I could make this trip. I wouldn’t have missed it,” Brad said. “(Brent) told me that, if I couldn’t be there, he wasn’t even going to bother to attend.”
If Brent gets let out, which could be next year if he’s “good enough,” he says he wants to run a blacksmithing school; moreover, he wants to “walk down the beach with grandmother.”
Until then, his educational achievements are his inspiration.
“It’s retribution for all the times that you feel left out and you don’t think like you’re not worthy to make it, you know?” he said. “To go back and see that, even in the worst possible situation in your life, you can do something good and come out with a good memory, and not a repressed one.”
For inmate No. 25884 Aaron Ross, with his mother, Carol, and father, Bruce, sitting by his side at a table following the ceremony, attending classes goes beyond accolades.
In a place where time may seem endless, the pursuit of knowledge acts as a deterrent to idle hands.
“You have no idea,” Ross said. “And especially in a place like this, you gotta keep your mind occupied, otherwise you end up doing stupid stuff.”
Although the Kansas native has always been interested in animals while on the outside, once things took a turn, he said, “Since being a felon, you can’t be a certified veterinarian.”
This, nevertheless, didn’t stop Ross from making the shift into computer technology while he was locked up. He even worked as an inmate IT representative during a stint at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp in Newcastle, he said.
“Aaron’s had a long-haul,” said Bruce. “But he describes himself well. He’s a learner, he’s very smart, catches on things real quick.”
Aaron says he’s not eligible for parole until next April.
As for Southward, he plans to use his educational endeavors, like a lot of his peers, to make his family proud, saying, “that’s all I want to focus on.”
A father to two children, a grandfather to four, Southward, who admitted to being nervous while giving his speech, said he needs to break free from his comfort zone if he’s ever going to get the chance to spend more time with them.
“I feel if that what it takes for me to step outside of myself and move forward,” he said.
His daughter, Ashley Hollingsworth, at his side, was asked what she wants to see her father do after he gets out of prison.
“I don’t care what he does, as long as he’s happy – that’s all I care about,” she said. “As long as he’s doing good for himself and he’s good in his mind, I’m happy.”
But in Southward’s case, before he can make strive to make his grandkids proud on the outside, he still has a bit more time on the inside.
“I got a few more years,” he said.
According to Muthig, the WPfP plans on expanding. This includes offering a full associate’s degree program to all Wyoming inmates.