Dr. Rivers is the commencement speaker today. We drive past miles and miles of corn fields and sod farms, then pull into the facility's main entrance. "Welcome to Macon State Prison" the sign out front reads. After surrendering photo IDs, we walk through a metal detector, a chain link fence and barbed-wire gates. A sobering reality overtakes me. We're led to a large hall where a piano and drum version of "Pomp and Circumstance” is played. A small group of parents, friends and teachers of the inmates assemble.
Gold tassels dangle from purple and white mortar boards worn by the graduates, who are draped in gowns of the same color. Everyone files in orderly. I immediately notice how young the inmates appear. Boyish faces, good-looking brothers, nice smiles. I almost forgot where I was. This could've been any graduation ceremony. I was quickly reminded of my whereabouts after looking down at the prisoners' starched, creased white pants with navy blue stripe seams and shined black brogans. I want to cross my legs to get comfortable, but Coley elbows me and tells me to cross them at the ankles. I do.
I wonder, what can Dr. Rivers say to make the situations of these convicted felons any better? Should it be any better because of the crimes they've committed? Were they guilty? What difference does a degree make in the grand scheme of these lives? Why should I feel sympathy for them? What would the families of their victims think? If I were one of their victims, how would I feel? Questions like this fill my mind in rapid-fire succession until I force myself to snap back into the ceremony.
"Ignorance is your greatest enemy. You've heard the saying 'what you don't know can't hurt you?' I've spent 21 years on death row all because of what I didn't know," said Solomon, one of the few 60-something inmates among the graduates. “Education is liberation. Ignorance is your enemy."
That statement answered one of the questions bombarding my mind. For the incarcerated, education provides mental freedom, if nothing else. I know people on the outside of jail cells who are more bound than prisoners, in the head.
A soloist with the Men of Zion prison choir leads several songs. His voice is as smooth and sultry as Sam Cook's. "The road's been rough, the going's been mighty tough, but I'm still holding on. I'll never let go of His hand."
The atmosphere changes in the room. The program has turned into a church service. Dr. Rivers intentionally leaves the prepared speech in the SUV and speaks extemporaneously. "Isn't it strange...that princes and kings…" (from "A bag of tools," by R.L. Sharpe)
I've heard him start a speech with this poem several times. But today, the words have a new meaning. The message is delivered in a preacher’s tone, volume and cadence. The president cups the mic similar to the way I’ve seen older pastors do; stepping back and forth away from the podium, rocking from side to side. Spontaneous 'amens' and handclaps enliven the stark, depressing room as Dr. Rivers shares a personal testimony about struggle. A high school counselor encouraged him to look for employment as a janitor after graduation, implying that he wasn’t capable of getting into college. With nothing but the blessings of his mom, dad and money enough to pay for one semester of classes, the president entered FVSU.
The author of three books who earned two doctorates holds the audience in the palm of his hands.
"Get knowledge. I’m encouraging you to go beyond where you are. When things get tough, fall on your knees."
The Men of Zion sing again. And I bat back tears. I really want to find a quiet spot alone and cry my eyes out. I swallow hard and keep clapping. I can’t judge the offenses of the inmates. But I can do something to help toward their rehabilitation. An encouraging word, as Dr. Rivers spoke, can accomplish a great feat. An inmate’s letter to the president later describes how the commencement message had an impact. The inmate has applied to attend FVSU through the university’s online course offerings.
--Vickie J. Oldham is the Special Assistant to the President for Marketing and Communications at Fort Valley State University