Commencement Where You Don’t Expect It

I finished teaching at the local house of correction a couple of weeks ago. Last Tuesday I attended the commencement ceremony for the ten men who went through the course.

Berkshire Community College administered the program funded by a $15,000 grant.  The program trained them to work in landscaping.  In addition to my class, which was workforce ethics, they received training in landscaping, environmental science, and OSHA certification.  They received their OSHA certification and college credit for successfully completing the program.

Everyone met in the jail library — the ten inmates, Sheriff Tom Bowler, some staff from the house of corrections, and several of us from Berkshire Community College, including staff and instructors.  The ceremony didn’t have all the pomp we’d normally expect with commencement, but the feeling of accomplishment was as palpable as any commencement ceremony.

The students collected their reflections in a book, which they gave to each of us.  Some of them noted that this course helped them to make a critical assessment of their lives – noting what a gift that was.  The book is a tremendous gift.

Sheriff Bowler’s generous comments expressed admiration for the work that the students accomplished.  He told us how well the students worked outside in the yard together; that they helped each other.  He pointed out to us that one of the students designed a flower bed to display an artifact the sheriff’s office received from the former World Trade Center site as an expression of thanks for a team from that office who went down there to help.

Talking with the students, we could tell that they were proud.  One of them pointed out that his certificate read “Berkshire Community College” not “Sheriff’s Department.”  He saw his future as taking classes so he could eventually stop working jobs on the swing shift – he wants to take writing.  I don’t think he is alone in believing that he can attend college.  All of the students expressed their gratitude for this opportunity.  This was commencement in that these men received skills which will help them when they are released, each over the next several weeks, and that they have a better chance to avoid incarceration again.

I learned that Sheriff Bowler wanted to have this type of program.  He worked with the college to put it in place.  After the ceremony while showing us other parts of the facility he said that programs of this type are key to changing these men’s lives.  He gave us a figure, well over $40,000 per year, to house each inmate.  Do the math.  This program was $1500 per inmate.  If this program works for even a few of them, it more than paid for itself.

He said he recently came from a national conference of sheriffs.  He said that many of his colleagues were impressed by this program, noting that in many incarceration facilities around the country inmates are just locked up.  (The recent series in the Times-Picayune on Louisiana’s prison system is heart wrenching.)

Although teaching these men was a killer with my over-scheduled life, it was more than fulfilling.  Hearing their stories and discussing life’s issues with them gave me a glimpse into a life and culture that I’ve never had an opportunity to learn.  Furthermore, that my participation in this program could positively change someone’s life is rewarding, too.

It also re-enforced what I’ve felt all along that we can do better as a state and a nation in investing in human lives.  This nation is wealthy beyond comprehension and yet we can’t seem to fund public education adequately. (See how New York State is cutting back on public education.)  Public assistance is paltry.  The current maximum benefit for food stamps in Massachusetts is $5.57 per day per person, which is without any income deductions.  Since we’re spending upwards of $40,000 per inmate per year, doesn’t it make sense to spend more up front to provide more economic stability so families are not as stressed?

If you look at the series of articles in the Times-Picayune, check out the graph of incarceration rates by state in Day 1 of the series.  Note the states.  Louisiana tops the list with an incarceration rate more than twice that of the United States, which holds the distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  The states with the highest incarceration rates also correspond closely with the states which invest the least in its people.

Incarceration costs are one of the fastest growing expenditures in state budgets.  It’s crowding out expenditures in other areas, such as public education.

The commencement ceremony I attended tells us something, theologically.  First, compassion goes a long way to repairing broken lives.  Second, redemption is real and grace that comes with second chances matter.  Third, we need to answer a question, “What message does our incarceration rate tell us as a nation, and does this message re-enforce the Biblical mandate to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan?”

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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