Pendleton High School and Blue Mountain Community College had already wrapped up their graduation ceremonies, but pomp and circumstance played one more time in Pendleton on Friday.
As the graduates walked down the aisle, blue jeans stamped with the Department of Corrections logo peeked out from underneath black robes, hinting at the rough road each graduate had traveled to get there — a road that had landed them in Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
No one had taken as long of an educational journey as Eric Burnham, who was recognized for earning a master’s degree in Christian counseling from Liberty University. When Burnham was first incarcerated 17 years ago he didn’t even have a GED.
“I fell in with violent friends, got in a fight with another man and it went real bad and I caught a lot of prison time,” he said.
He credits his educational opportunities in prison with taking him on a journey of self-discovery and change.
“You begin to realize there’s a fundamental problem with the way you view other people and the way you view yourself, “ he said. “I realized I could contribute to society. I didn’t have to be a drain.”
Most of the men in caps and gowns were there to receive a GED, but Mark Fernandez was getting his associate of general studies from Blue Mountain Community College.
The degree was made possible by the New Directions Education Project, a Pendleton nonprofit that uses private grants and donations to fund college courses at the prison. After accepting his diploma in front of family members who had traveled from other states to see his graduation, Fernandez had a long list of people he wanted to thank, including instructors, peer mentors and prison staff.
Because New Directions only has the resources to offer inmates a couple of college classes per quarter, Fernandez said getting a college degree from BMCC was a “slow process” he began in 2008.
“It was an escape from prison life, to concentrate on learning,” he said.
Stan Prowant, who was one of Fernandez’s instructors from 2008 to 2013, told the audience that he was a “very excellent student” who was quiet, personable and always prepared.
The 32 students receiving a GED at the ceremony, represented by class speaker Donald Klein, was the largest group of graduates at one of the EOCI’s quarterly ceremonies since the requirements for a GED were increased in 2014.
John Remington, speech and literature instructor, congratulated them in his keynote address for having the courage to come to class each week.
“Your education is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you, the one thing you will always carry with you,” he said.
There are critics who say the opportunity to get a college degree in prison takes away from the punishment of incarceration, but after Friday’s graduation ceremony New Directions board member Bonnie Douglas said there is clear research showing that the more educated an inmate is, the less likely they are to return to prison after they get out. And a majority of them will get out at some point.
“Most of them will be your neighbor someday,” she said.
Prowant added that the connection seems obvious — if someone gets out of prison with no education and no job skills, it makes it hard to find a way to support themselves without resorting to crime.
He described teaching college courses like geology at the prison as “teaching at an all-boys school where they all wear uniforms” — with some exceptions, of course.
“They always ask me, can we take a field trip? And then they all laugh,” he said.
His students landed in prison for serious offenses, including violent crimes, but only the best-behaved, most motivated inmates are recommended to New Beginnings, so Prowant said in some ways they were easier to teach than his classes on the regular BMCC campus were.
“You ask them to do homework, they all do their homework,” he said. “They’re always there.”
Mardel James-Bose, an instructor and board member, said she and most other instructors are able to look up what their students were convicted of, but usually try hard to avoid knowing what they are in prison for so that it doesn’t cloud their judgment of the student’s academic work.
Douglas said New Beginnings was started 16 years ago after a federal rule change that denied inmates access to Pell Grants. Inmates in the New Beginnings program pay only $10 per credit hour out of their own pockets, which she said is “a lot more money” on the inside than in everyday society. Since New Beginnings only offers two classes at a time, and they’re not always the classes an inmate needs to finish up their degree, getting just an associate’s degree is a years-long process, which is why only six inmates have actually graduated so far through New Beginnings even though there are many more taking classes. After leaving New Beginnings, some inmates can earn a more advanced degree by finding acceptance to one of the shrinking number of colleges that still offer “snail mail” correspondence courses that don’t require internet access.
For more information about New Beginnings, visit bluecc.edu/community/correctional-facility-education/new-directions.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.