On an unusually bright, warm November day, a celebration inside St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Virginia, brought the joy of 30 incarcerated men to life before a crowd of 75.
The occasion was a graduation for the members of the Prison Fellowship Academy® —the first in the state of Virginia. In select prisons across the country, the Academy offers incarcerated men and women a pathway to holistic life transformation. Guided by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers, participants learn to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.
Friends and family, correctional officials, and government representatives gathered to honor the graduates for their hard work. At times, it was difficult to believe the graduation was taking place behind bars. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits, including the men welcoming their guests. The celebration was a milestone for the men and the state of Virginia.
'Our staff and the men in our custody know who's in 350B.
They look different. They act different.'
A WARM WELCOME
As guests entered the door leading to the event, they were greeted by Woody and William, two incarcerated men with bright eyes and warm smiles. A spread of food and drinks, complete with fried chicken and sweet tea—staples for a Virginia get-together—was waiting inside.
The graduates were sprinkled around the room, some smiling and posing for photos, others in conversation with guests. Their family members arrived just before the event.
One Academy graduate hugged his brother, whom he hadn't seen for 11 years. Another anxiously waited for his father, who had had taken on the roles of caregiver and father-figure to his grandchildren during his son's sentence.
The familial conversations were put on hold for an impromptu ceremony where the incarcerated men honored and thanked the top three St. Brides corrections officials, including Assistant Warden Anthony White, for their leadership and facilitation of the Academy. Then the graduation began.
THE MEN FROM 350B
As the graduating class processed into the room wearing green caps and gowns, the crowd rose to their feet in applause. The St. Brides Academy program manager Mike Dunavant, or "Coach," as the graduates came to know him, kicked off the event with by acknowledging that this was a special day. "To end the year with this crowd and this kind of energy is amazing," he said.
Assistant Warden White spoke next and affirmed the transformation he has witnessed in the graduates' lives and in the prison. "Our staff and the men in our custody know who's in 350B," he said, referring to the cellblock Academy participants call home during the program. "They look different. They act different."
Next up was Harold Clarke, director of Virginia's Department of Corrections. After surveying the men and the crowd with a grin, he said, "This is what I envision when I think about corrections." He reminded the graduates that they had indeed made bad choices, which is why they were in prison, but that they had also made good decisions, like enrolling in the Academy. "Don't forget the bad choices," he said, "but don't dwell on them. Dwell on the good ones."
'Don't forget the bad choices, but don't dwell on them.
Dwell on the good ones.'
A VISION FOR SUCCESS
Graduate Eric Johnson's long-time addictions to drugs and alcohol sent him behind bars. Though he was locked up, Eric's mind found freedom as he sobered up. "It's been a long road, but we made it," he shared with his graduating class.
After realizing he needed to make a change, Eric enrolled in the Academy and over time found freedom from his bad choices and the fear that had driven them. "I started to see I was much more than a drug addict. And the fear started to drain away," Eric said. "As time went on in this program, I started gaining confidence."
Eric started his own LLC in prison, realizing a long-time dream of becoming an entrepreneur. The Academy's core values, he said, "catapulted me to success."
"I was a man with just a dream a year ago," said Eric. "Now I have a plan for success, a vision, and a promise for the future." He knew there were some incarcerated men present who were considering enrolling in the Academy. To them, he said, "If you do, I guarantee positive, life-changing results."
BUILDING ON A FIRM FOUNDATION
Eric was followed by Prison Fellowship President and CEO James J. Ackerman, who encouraged the men by reminding them, "Just because you are in prison does not mean you have missed God's plan for your life."
National Director of Academy Advancement Jesse Wiese closed the program by urging the graduates to be strong for the days ahead. "I challenge you to go forward and build on what has been deposited in you," he said.
'Just because you are in prison does not mean
you have missed God's plan for your life.'
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