Inmates earn GEDs during graduation ceremony

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 29, 2001

FERRIDAY, La. – Family members gathered around a graduate, recording the moments before the graduation march with cameras and camcorders.

Nearby, a pair of graduates helped each other adjust their caps and tassels just so. And as they marched to the stage, a few took the opportunity to give thumbs-up signs to the well-wishers who were cheering them on.

&uot;This just feels … so wonderful,&uot; said Billie Brown, mother of graduate Corye Brown, grinning from ear to ear. &uot;I’m so proud.&uot;

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In other words, it was just like any other graduation- except for the fact that it took place at the Concordia Parish Correctional Facility, where the graduates are inmates.

In a Thursday night ceremony, 11 inmates marched across a stage in the facility’s community center to receive their General Education Diplomas, or GEDs. Two other graduates were released prior to the ceremony.

More than 80 inmates have graduated from the prison’s GED program since it was started in 1997, said the program’s educational facilitator, Arijo Ray Green.

Students volunteer for the program and study at their own pace, with help from instructors and inmates who serve as tutors. They can take anywhere from three weeks to one year to earn their diplomas.

&uot;These men have anywhere from a second-grade education on up when they start,&uot;&160;Green said.

It certainly seems to have brought about a change in graduate Dan Tyler, 21. While he still has nine more years to serve in prison, Tyler is already considering taking college classes. Correspondence classes are offered at the facility.

&uot;This gave me the chance to turn my life around,&uot; Tyler said. &uot;Otherwise, when I got out (of prison), I’d just go back and do the same things I was doing.&uot;

Eddie Coleman also plans to attend college when he is released from prison in about 90 days.

&uot;I quit school in sixth grade, and now I’m over 40, so I decided to give it a try,&uot; said Coleman, 42. &uot;It took 10 months (to earn a GED), and sometimes I&160;wanted to quit. But these are good people – they stuck by me when I was ready to quit. I&160;especially owe a lot to him.&uot;

Coleman was pointing to Brian Navarre, an inmate who tutored Coleman and counseled him throughout his studies, encouraging him not to give up earning a GED.

&uot;They’re willing, but sometimes you have to push them a little,&uot; Navarre said. &uot;It’s a pleasure when you see these people succeed, … when they thank you for helping them out.&uot;

In their addresses to the small crowd of teachers, family and friends, inmates thanked Sheriff Randy Maxwell, Warden Russell Butler, their instructors and other supporters for giving them the chance to learn.

And in his address to graduates, Vidalia Junior High principal and veteran educator Fred Marsalis commended the graduates themselves for taking steps to turn their lives around.

&uot;As the song says, ‘We fall down, but we get up. … A saint is just a sinner that fell down but got up’,&uot; Marsalis said. &uot;You’re taking the first step to getting up. Keep on stepping.&uot;