Their full-cheeked, youthful faces peeking between their black cap and gown, with darting eyes scanning the crowd for parents and loved ones, were all the markings of a high school graduation.
The not-quite typical special occasion was only betrayed by the white uniformed pants marked with a single blue stripe on each side that started where the black gown stopped, as well as the chain-linked fences adorned with barbed wire that surrounded the graduation hall.
Under the watchful eye of brown-uniformed guards there, was an obvious sense of discipline among the graduates.
James Williams, 20, is one of more than 30 inmates to receive their General Education Diploma at Friday morning’s graduation held at Lancaster Correctional Institution, a prison facility in Gilchrist County for male youthful offenders ages 15 to 25 years who are considered medium to minimum security risks.
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A story published by The Sun in 2010 said inmates at Lancaster “awaken before dawn for breakfast and exercise and, by 8 a.m., have reported to classrooms or work crews. They are required to march as a group virtually every time they leave their dormitories, are scheduled for activities like AA meetings and church services after school and work and have almost no free time until lights go out around 9 p.m.”
Williams was sentenced to six years for armed robbery. He said he dropped out of school after the 10th grade and started working to provide for his family. He did not have a close relationship with his mother and made no mention of his father. He said he tried to make fast money the day he committed the robbery.
“I’m not glad I came (to Lancaster), but I am glad I came because now I know,” said Williams. “I could be dead or I could have accidentally shot somebody and I’d be doing a life sentence and that would be it.”
Williams has two daughters, a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old. He said his family is a large part of his motivation to turn his life around.
In preparing for the GED exam, math was the hardest subject for Williams — he had to take extra work back to his dorm and get tutoring help from another inmate who had already passed the GED. Language arts came much easier. Loving to read and write, Williams said other inmates will often ask him to write letters for them.
“Sorry letters, love letters … all types of stuff,” he said. “They tell me how they’re feeling, then I just put it in my own words.”
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For inmates at Lancaster, it was never just the subject matter of the exam that they needed help with. Coming mostly from troubled homes, discipline and structure were foreign concepts for many of the inmates before incarceration, Williams said.
“The teacher I had was like a grandmother … she was good to me,” said Williams. “Make sure you put ‘Ms. Skurka’s the best teacher,’ ” he concluded before returning to his lunch table.
Silver-haired and donning a black and white floral print dress with a turquoise blue sweater, Valerie Skurka could be the strictest grandmother her students ever encountered.
“My class is very, very structured,” said Skurka. “They are very aware of my rules and very aware of the consequences.
Nicholas Thurston, 20, attested to Skurka’s firmness from firsthand experience. Thurston was released from Lancaster on April 22 after completing his sentence for robbery. On Friday, he traveled over two hours to Lancaster — located on State Road 26, just 3.5 miles west of Trenton — to receive his diploma.
“I kept getting kicked out of class for being disobedient and talking back,” said Thurston. “She made me stand outside. It’s hot out there. I just started working because I didn’t want to stand outside.”
Skurka said she does send the inmates outside her classroom for breaking rules, but said her best tools are positive reinforcement. The inmates in the GED program each maintain an assignment sheet that is reviewed at the end of the week. In a method reminiscent of elementary school, if they’ve kept up with their work, they get a star. When they’ve earned four stars, they get a sticker.
“I have seen 22-year-olds almost cry because they didn’t get their sticker,” said Skurka. “The biggest hurdle is getting them to understand they’re worthy of their education and they’re smart enough to get their education,” she explained. Some of these guys are the first in their family to have a high school diploma.
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Tina Byrd said she’s certain her son 19-year-old William Byrd, who also received his GED Friday, would be dead by now if he wasn’t incarcerated at Lancaster. The younger Byrd is in the last half of his six-year sentence for burglary after he broke into the home of a law enforcement officer in search of prescription pills and tried to steal the officer’s handgun.
William was so high at the time that Tina Byrd was told her son should have died. William said he has been sober for 2 years now. Several of his friends from the street have died of drug overdoses, he said.
Recidivism rates for offenders under 25 years old are near 60 percent, according to the 2011 Florida Prison Recidivism Study. Knowing this fact, Lancaster staff also focus on life skills for the inmates in hopes of putting a dent into that figure.
On Fridays, they conduct a banking class in which inmates are responsible for paying rent, utilities and child support if they have children.
Florida state Rep. Keith Perry, who since 1996 has served as president of House of Hope, a local Christian-based rehabilitation program for newly released prisoners, gave the keynote address.
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