WARREN — The ceremony resembled most graduations, with marching students, university administration in colorful regalia and commencement speeches lauding the graduates for their accomplishments.
But unlike other graduations, the 13 men accepting their diplomas didn’t leave with their friends and family. Instead, they returned to their cells and their friends and family left through doors that slid shut behind them.
It was the third University of Maine at Augusta graduation held at the Maine State Prison as part of a college education program funded by philanthropist Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Buffett, who attended Monday’s ceremony, said her organization, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, has spent nearly $1 million in the last seven years paying for inmates to take college classes at the prison.
This year, 14 inmates graduated with degrees from UMA – eight with associate degrees in liberal studies and six with Bachelor of Arts degrees in liberal studies – and 13 attended the ceremony. Of the 14 graduates, 13 graduated with honors.
Deborah Meehan of the University College at Rockland, which administers the program, said faculty members say the inmates are some of their best students.
Buffett said she started the program, which is also run in eight other states, to have a positive impact on people’s lives. But the success it has had in keeping graduates from returning to prison surprised her, she said.
None of the inmates who have graduated from any of the programs has gone back to prison, according to Buffett. That includes Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York state, which has offered a college education program to its inmates for more than a decade.
Nationally, the percentage of inmates who later return to prison is around 43 percent, according to a 2011 study from the Pew Center on the States.
The recidivism rate in Maine isn’t tracked, but the head of the Warren prison said educational programming has been proved to reduce the risk of inmates reoffending.
Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard said people are more likely to change their lives and behavior if programming like this is available and not if the focus of the prison is on punishment.
“This approach might seem a little counterintuitive, but it’s really the approach that works,” Bouffard said.
Student commencement speaker Brandon Brown thanked everyone involved in the program and said their belief in the students helped students believe in themselves.
“I was positive that I had no chance of redemption at all,” Brown said. “All I saw was fences and barb(ed) wire and all I saw beyond was just a blur.”
Brown, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2010 for shooting a man outside a nightclub in Portland, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, said he now wants to teach and help inspire other students.
Another graduate, Steven Clark, said he works with other inmates in the substance abuse counseling program. He said his education has given them the ability and emotional intelligence to support others struggling with issues he faced himself. Clark was sentenced to 43 years in prison in 2007 for fatally shooting a friend after a night of heavy drinking and drug use.
The program has “not only made society a better place but made the prison a better place,” he said.
Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, hugged Clark after he accepted his diploma. She said he and others in the program have volunteered for the NAACP at the prison.
Ross said the program shows that it’s possible for people to change and not be defined by past mistakes.
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