In a back room at Denver Women's Correctional Facility (DWCF), five jet-black robes slip over prison uniforms.
For the ladies wearing them, the wait has been worth it. In three-plus years, they have conquered all 16 modules of an intensive biblical leadership program facilitated by Prison Fellowship® staff and volunteers, through a partnership with World Impact and their curriculum known as The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI). Thirty-two credit hours, 300 hours in the classroom, and countless pages of essays and homework lay behind them. So many possibilities lie ahead.
One graduate catches her reflection in the glass partition between her and the room full of guests. Her purple stole is a regal touch; her mortarboard, a well-deserved crown. She tucks stray hairs into place. Is it 6p.m. yet?
FREEDOM COMES FROM WITHIN
Proud smiles replace nervous jitters as the graduates line up. The music starts. The audience stands. The class marches to the front, a total of seven—five prisoners plus two mentors who had also enrolled in the program. They are the first TUMI prison class in Colorado and the second in a women’s facility nationally.
Program site leader Tonya Carkeet opens the ceremony with grateful remarks to the DOC, mentors, and attendees, and offers congratulations to the students.
"These women prove that freedom comes from within, from following God," says Tonya.
'THANK YOU FOR BELIEVING WE WERE WORTH IT'
A small band enters to lead the room in worship. One student raises a hand in praise and wipes tears with the other. Others, like Lacie, step up to the podium to read Scriptures and share personal testimonies.
Her classmates have dreams, too, from becoming a chef to earning a college degree.
"It's not just about what we're taking outside, either. It starts right in here," adds Lacie. "We've been trained to raise up other women [on the inside], and lead them to Christ."
In a special video address, curriculum author Dr. Don Davis congratulates each graduate by name. Dana is recognized for the highest GPA; Susan, for perfect attendance. With a final dedication and prayer, the ceremony concludes for dinner.
SHATTERED NOTIONS, SHARED HOPES
The excitement in the room is palpable. By the buffet table, a female officer and a prisoner stop to admire each other's fingernail polish. Family, celebration, a warm catered meal—it doesn't quite feel like a prison.
One DWCF lieutenant observes, "None of these ladies are coming back in when they get out."
Mentor Darwin Niekirk agrees: "To see the transformation is truly amazing. There's nothing like it. By the time this is over, they truly are not the same people they were when they started."
Through volunteering, Darwin grew, too. "I learned so much in the process of teaching," he says. "I've found that people never get what they expected coming into prison [as volunteers] for the first time. God has a way of surprising them."
"People have all these fears about going behind bars to volunteer, like, 'What can I bring to them? Do they really even want me in here?'" shares mentor Bob Oldfield. "Once you're in, and you get to know them, it shatters those preconceived notions. You never think of them the same way again."
"The thing about volunteering, to me," Elaine adds, "is that most of these women are going to be out someday. We can help them come out stronger than they went in."