Accomplishments in Prison

Let’s face it . . . who really wants to go to prison?

When it involves watching the TUMI Class of 2016 graduate at the California Institution for Women, I do.

I don’t want to make light of the fact that prison is a serious place to be. Most people don’t go there on purpose, but rather are sent there as a result of lifestyle choices that contradict the moral foundations of society. It’s not a vacation.

Yet, it’s exactly for those reasons that an event like the TUMI graduation is so wonderful. It’s not usually expected that people will excel during their time in prison or accomplish academic goals in line with a seminary-level education. However, that’s precisely what these women did.

The women in this program have devoted years to their studies.

The women in this program have devoted years to their studies.

In order to provide a better understanding of just how remarkable this kind of graduation is, I’ll give you a brief description of the coursework involved. The Urban Ministry Institute trains up leaders within the prison system through sixteen intensive courses that are each ten weeks long. To successfully complete the program, students must study for hundreds of hours in order to absorb the course material, which includes topics on theology, ethics, and Christian ministry, among others. Persisting with the program involves an exercise of fortitude, as students literally spend years of their lives striving towards the end goal.

Prison-based education is the single most effective tool for lowering recidivism.
— United States Department of Justice, 2009

As with any education, there are those who don’t complete it. It’s never automatically assumed that TUMI students will endure until the finish line; they’re provided with the tools needed to succeed, but the choice to do so must be their own. Because of these factors, a graduating class has every right to be proud of their accomplishments.

Never having been to such an event, I went into the prison not knowing what to expect. Usually, a general avoidance of graduations is my goal; let’s be honest, they can be dull! I was even bored by my own graduation. Looking back, part of the problem was that I didn’t fully appreciate what a wonderful gift it was. It’s easy to take education for granted and even feel entitled to receiving a diploma.

Not so with these ladies.

The women who graduated from TUMI were exuberant at their accomplishment!

The women who graduated from TUMI were exuberant at their accomplishment!

When that processional march played, eight beaming women floated down the aisle, and I mean that almost literally. They looked ready to burst with scarcely-contained exuberance as their families and other TUMI students cheered them on. What followed were joyful songs sung with hands raised, tearful reflections from the graduates, a beautiful dance presentation, and testimonials from volunteers. The invocation, commencement speech, and dedication were all uplifting as well, aimed at encouraging the graduates to continue acting upon their hard-won knowledge.

The graduation meant something to those eight women, and having the privilege to watch it meant something to me. It was a lesson in humility to see so much gratitude over something I might have taken for granted. They worked so hard, and they finished very well.

It was exactly what every graduation should be: a celebration.