Their Future Begins Now
Offenders hope education will unlock barriers to a successful life
Tuesday, February 08, 2011 10:00 AM
School was the only stable factor in Sammantha's life, and getting her high school diploma "was always a dream."
SPECIAL DAY: Graduates of the Promise Junior/Senior High School Class of 2011 stand in the library at the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility as their friends and family look on. More than two dozen young women have earned high school diplomas or their G.E.D. while incarcerated at the facility. (Staff photo by Travis Sturgill)
"My personal life was never stable."
But even school couldn't keep her from drugs, which led to a cycle of going into programs and then out because of what she called "far from appropriate behavior," more drug use or the end of insurance coverage.
"My drug use was taking over my life," Sammantha said.
Her next-to-last stop was a county juvenile detention center. Fighting back tears, she described to a room full of friends, family and strangers Monday what happened at the end of her two-week stay: "My mom refused to take me home."
Her final stop was the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility, a prison for young girls and women. When Sammantha told her story, she was wearing a blue graduation gown and a white cap with tassel, and a few minutes later would receive a Core 40 high school diploma from Promise Junior/Senior High School, the facility's school.
Graduating, she said, "changed my whole outlook on my life. ... I'm looking forward to the opportunities" that a high school diploma will bring.
"I'm looking forward to college," she said.
Sammantha had received her diploma Jan. 3, but on Monday she and fellow high school graduate Mallory and G.E.D. recipients Samantha, Cassandra and Kayla had a real graduation ceremony, the first at the juvenile facility since it opened on the hilltop 14 months ago.
More than two dozen other teens have finished their schoolwork there.
Two of the G.E.D. recipients, Jamie and another Samantha, were unable to attend the ceremony. In addition to receiving a G.E.D., Samantha received Microsoft certification through Ivy Tech Community College, which is good for three college credit hours.
Indiana Department of Correction policy requires that only offenders' first names can be used, and there can be no details such as hometowns or regions of the state where they are from. The offenders' faces cannot be photographed. When an offender reaches the age of 22, her records will be destroyed by the state, so there will be no official record that she ever was in the juvenile facility, said Shannon Bowling, public information officer at the facility.
G.E.D. graduate Samantha addressed the graduation audience as the valedictorian, or highest-ranking in grades, of the G.E.D. class.
Samantha took a practice G.E.D. test and scored 800, a perfect score. When she took the official test, she got the same score.
"Thank you for teaching us and listening to us," she said in her valedictory speech. "We stole, did drugs and ran away. ... We thought we were invincible and wouldn't get caught."
At the juvenile facility, she said, she and the other offenders "learn to have fun without breaking rules," and with education "we would get the college experience we imagined."
Parents in the audience chuckled when she said that one day, the parents will be able to borrow money from their children instead of the other way around.
"We're ready to try," Samantha said. "And ready to quit being so darn stubborn."
The salutatorian of the G.E.D. class, who ranked second in grades, said in her speech that "sometimes kids do things that really hurt themselves," and said the reasons include that the child is being hurt; is using drugs, perhaps after seeing parents use drugs; or is under peer pressure.
Cassandra always liked art, and at the juvenile facility "realized how good I was at art," she said in her salutatory speech.
"Adversity can sometimes make you stronger," she said.
After the graduation ceremony and a cake and punch reception, and after parents left and the two offenders each graduate was allowed to invite had gone back to their routines, three of the graduates agreed to be interviewed. Bowling, as required by DOC policy, was present.
"When I was in tenth grade I started running away," Kayla said. "Two years I was running, wasn't in school."
She got caught. Kayla arrived at the juvenile facility Nov. 24 last year. She is scheduled to be released at the end of this month and will start classes at the Ivy Tech Community College campus closest to her home in August. She checked into getting a G.E.D. shortly after her running ended.
"When I got caught, I looked it up. It was a chance to get my education and better myself rather than say, 'Oh, I'm in girls school.'"
She was in Promise Junior/Senior High School only a week before she took the pre-test for the G.E.D. and did so well she went ahead and took the actual test.
Before she started running, she said, "I had those times when I skipped school. I liked going to school to see my friends."
At Ivy Tech she plans to get an associate degree in business management, then go to beauty school to study cosmetology. "I want to open my own business," she said.
She's taking two classes at the juvenile facility in keyboarding, which upon completion will result in three credit hours in college. She also is taking a physical education class, helps clean the school and helps in the facility warehouse.
"I knew when I went on the run that I would be giving up my life," she said. "I wanted to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. ... I'm not going to run anymore. It's too much trouble."
Her advice to teens thinking about running: "Think twice before you do it. If you have problems at home, talk to someone before you decide. ... I didn't go to the prom. I didn't get to graduate with my high school class. But I graduated from here and I'm proud of that. I missed out on my family."
Samantha's journey to the juvenile facility started at school.
"I got expelled and never went back," she said. She had a baby and stayed out of school.
She got arrested and flunked a drug test.
She has been at the juvenile facility for almost three months and is scheduled to be released next week. Her toddler attended her graduation and afterward they played.
The average length of stay at the facility is five months, Bowling said. It used to be 11 months, but the state law was changed to keep out girls for whom other programs were available.
"I'm going to stay home this time," Samantha said. She plans to be home with her child in the daytime, take night classes at Ivy Tech and go to her church youth group meetings on Wednesdays.
At Ivy Tech, she will be working toward auto mechanic certification. She previously had taken an auto shop class.
Having her G.E.D. will get her life back on track.
"At least something good is coming out of me getting arrested," Samantha said.
Cassandra, the G.E.D. salutatorian, has blossomed as an artist at the juvenile facility, where art teacher Rachel Long is on the faculty. Ball State University and Ivy Tech provide the curriculum and hire the faculty, whose other members are Debbie Caldwell, remedial math and language; Scott Fellows, physical education and health; Kirsten Carlson, science; Troy Lane, history; and Dustin Robinson, English.
Cassandra plans to go to art school, with a goal of being a tattoo artist. But she's also planning to get a business management degree at Ivy Tech "to fall back on" if necessary.
Before she was an offender, she did mostly graffiti-style lettering. Now, does flowers and other objects. She said she thinks through a piece of art, from the shapes to each color and where it goes, before starting.
She's been at the juvenile facility since Nov. 23 of last year after skipping school, being suspended repeatedly and then expelled. When she got to the facility, "they said I could take my G.E.D. for free, and I took advantage of it."
Her release date is Feb. 21.
"I'm moving back to the house, starting all over with my mom, get a job, save up my money, get a car," she said.
One of the graduates' release date was Monday. As she and her family left the library where the ceremony and reception had been held, her friends still wearing khaki pants and purple T-shirts told her they loved her, and she turned one last time and grinned a huge smile.
Principal Barb Siegelin, speaking to the graduates, their families, teachers, friends from inside the facility and corrections officers, quoted Confucius, who said, "Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall."
"These girls failed as well ... but they got up," Siegelin said.
Juvenile facility Superintendent Angela Sutton said the offenders' home lives and the things they had done "I can't even imagine."
"The easiest thing for them to do is give up," Sutton said.
Completing an education will enable the offenders "to do something better with their lives when they leave here," Sutton said.
"The students in this room have accepted this challenge," she said, adding that graduation day was the "beginning of a successful life for these ladies."