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College degrees conferred upon 85 inmates

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



WESTVILLE — The graduation had all of the hallmarks of a typical commencement: caps and gowns, excited family members, and “Pomp and Circumstance.” Only the setting was different: the gymnasium at the Westville Correctional Facility’s education complex.

Purdue University North Central Chancellor James Dworkin congratulated the 85 inmates, who received 18 bachelor’s degrees, 30 associate degrees and 58 certificates.

“You’ve accomplished something that seemed impossible only a few years ago,” Dworkin said. “You have the skills that you need to change your world.”

Dworkin noted several recent graduates who have gone on to successful jobs once they got out of prison. To enter the program, offenders must meet Purdue’s admissions standards and have a high school or equivalency diploma.

It was the Westville facility’s 26th commencement, and possibly its last. State budget cuts could mean fewer inmates will get the chance to take college classes while in prison.

Offenders must fund their own education, but they are eligible for some state and federal grants. On July 1, the State Student Assistance Commission will stop awarding grants to a “confined felon.”

Gary native Isaiah Grant, who received a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, lauds the program for helping offenders become productive citizens.

“I feel like it was an opportunity to improve myself and be an example to other young men to strive to be better,” Grant said. “It saddens my heart (that the program might end) because this helps individuals improve themselves. The loss of the program would be very devastating and a blow to these guys.”

Grant, who has served five years in prison for neglect of a dependent, was grateful that his sister and his girlfriend were there to cheer him on. He plans to become an entrepreneur when he gets out of prison.

“I know he worked very hard, and math really kicked his butt,” said his sister, Sherina Jones of Chicago. “It’s really great to see him accomplish something that will be able to help him when he gets out.”

Malachi Mitchell, who is from Michigan City, was celebrating his two certificates in organizational leadership and office production with his mom, Mary Dockery.

“I proud of him graduating, and it’s the second graduation I’ve been to after high school,” Dockery said.

Mitchell has served two and a half years of a sentence for dealing cocaine, but he’s hopeful his studies will lead him down a different path.

“Education, you can’t get too much of it,” Mitchell said. “It gives you a plan, and you don’t have to go back to what you’ve done before.”

Westville spokesman John Schrader said the Department of Correction hopes to aid inmates who are close to completing their associate or bachelor’s degrees in the next year, but the plan is not set in stone.

“We will be here next year, but in what capacity, I don’t know,” said PNC Dean of Students John Coggins. “This is a winning program. People don’t return (to prison) after graduating.”



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