There was quite a commotion in the Mobile County Metro Jail last week, as a noisy parade of corrections officers and chaplains made their way through every cell block followed by five inmates draped in caps and gowns.
“M.E.T.R.O. Metro High,” they chanted.
Those inmates had just graduated from Metro’s GED program with the equivalent of a four-year high school diploma after months of studying for an exam that, for some, took multiple attempts to pass.
“It was kind of off and on to start with, but it took me probably about three months to obtain it altogether,” said Richard Saxon, who’s spent the past 20 months behind bars. “It was probably about 10 months when I realized where my life was, and I wanted to make a change.”
At 28, Saxon was one of the five graduates who received a GED on Dec. 14. The others were Cortez Green, 25; Bryan Moore, 22; Tomichael Tate, 40; and 19-year-old Jordan Johnson.
For most, the ceremony was the first time they’d been able to spend personal time with their family members in years. Even those whose loved ones didn’t show up were quickly claimed by the corrections officers.
“We’re your family now,” one officer said.
Since the GED program started in 2009, more than 170 Metro inmates have received a high school education at no cost to taxpayers with help from other inmates, volunteers and instructors provided through a partnership with Goodwill Easter Seals of the Gulf Coast.
As he received the certification, Saxon said the GED program was “a saving grace” and could “open up new doors for my future.” Green, who had been kicked out of the program once, said he rejoined for “the lady right in front of me” as he pointed to his mother in the audience.
For an older inmate like Tate, though, a GED. wasn’t just about his future. He told the room that he needed his high school education to “try and do something better for my kids.”
“In our journey through life, we’ve all done things that were good, and things that were bad — all of us,” Goodwill Easter Seals CEO Frank Harkins said at the ceremony. “You’ve done something bad enough to get you in here, but it can’t keep you here.”
However, while Harkins and others offered words of encouragement, some of the graduates’ futures remain uncertain even with an education. Though some are incarcerated for lesser crimes like assault and drug-related offenses, Johnson and Moore are facing murder charges.
But despite those unknowns, the instructors that help facilitate the GED program said most of their students are highly motivated throughout a process that “is not easy.” Cyndi Thompson, an outreach and testing coordinator for GESGC, said seeing inmates work through situations others might see as hopeless is the best part of her job.
“You’ve got some that are going to prison and they’re going to be there awhile … maybe for life, but there’s still hope for them,” Thompson said. “We’ve gotten letters from inmates that are now helping others in prison to get their GED or learn to read, and it’s something that makes their life fulfilling. They’re still doing something … they’re helping people.”
But while getting a GED might only be a personal milestone for those facing serious time, it’s a practical move for others — one that can help them gain employment on the outside and, in some cases, avoid a longer prison sentence. Jonathan Braswell, a Goodwill program manager who works with local inmates, said those can be “powerful motivation” for other inmates.
One of his students recently avoided a possible 20 years in prison after he spoke with a judge about attaining a GED while serving time at Metro. Instead, Braswell said he was sentenced to nine months of probation, rehabilitation and a year in a halfway house.
“That kind of thing spreads back there like wildfire, and the waiting list to get in here is huge,” Braswell said. “For the ones that come in, though, they’re motivated. They want to change their lives, and this is something they know they can do that because they’ve seen the results.”
Braswell’s statements seemed to ring true as inmates saw the graduates moving through the different areas of the jail after last week’s ceremony. Block by block, prisoners stopped what they were doing to applaud and congratulate the graduates of “Metro High.”
Mobile County Juvenile Court Judge Edmond Naman gave the commencement address to the graduates. Shaking their hands, Naman said what each of the graduates has done is important. He said he regularly sees parents in juvenile court that struggle to make ends meet because of a lack of education, which can affect how their children value education as well.
“There are literally thousands of people that are ‘fixin’ to get a GED,’ and the truth is, most of them aren’t,” he said. “Then you guys come into this place where your future is, in some cases, certainly uncertain and you decide, ‘I’m going to break one of those chains that’s been holding me down.’ You guys represent everything we try to do in juvenile court.”
Sheriff Sam Cochran said the GED program helps improve the behavior of inmates who participate because it “gives them something positive to focus on.” Ultimately though, he said it’s about “second chances.”
“We believe in second chances because we all make mistakes … some of us were just fortunate enough to get away with ours,” Cochran told the graduates. “Today, you’ve been given what I think are the two most important keys to success, and that’s love and an education. They can carry you all the way through your life.”