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‘We have hope’

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There was no pomp and circumstance. No caps were thrown gleefully into the air.

There were, however, plenty of smiles, a few high-fives and ample servings of cake.

And soon after the celebration, the stars of the show were back in their cells.

Welcome to graduation in the Montana Women’s Prison.

Like other graduations, the ceremony was a mixture of solemn observance and joyful celebration. A member of the graduating class gave a short speech and future graduates were pressed to do their best.

What made this unique, however, was that these “students” didn’t graduate from a typical general education experience. They got significant props – and a certificate from Montana State University Billings – for completing work in everything from philosophy and writing to demonstrating basic carpentry skills and graphic design.

The courses were provided through a unique program MSU Billings designed to upgrade academic and workforce skills for offenders at Montana Women’s Prison in Billings. The program, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, began nearly 11 months ago and featured instruction from many faculty members from the university as well as the community.

As with any graduating class, the students at the women’s prison were justifiably proud of their accomplishments. During the course of the past few months, they have showcased scale-model homes to staffers from U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and state legislators and have talked about their experiences with Dr. Sheila Stearns, Montana’s commissioner of higher education.

The skills developed in the program have been important, the women have said in different meetings, but just as significant has been the encouragement the women received from instructors and from completing the work assignments.

“This is the first time anyone has ever told me that I could do something,” one inmate said through tears this fall, holding a completed scale model of a house.

There were 20 inmates enrolled when the class started in January. After nine were discharged or moved to pre-release centers throughout the state, 11 inmates completed the program. Some completed more than 200 hours of work by the time graduation day came around in mid-November.

“It was really cool,” said Tami Haaland, assistant professor of English at MSU Billings who not only taught literature and creative writing, but led a book discussion group in the prison. “There were a lot of those first-time learning kind of experiences.”

She and other faculty who taught classes say the initial class was a mutual learning experience. Haaland recalled that in her first session on creative writing, she provided a lot of information that was foreign to the women. It was probably too much.

“On the second session, one of the bright, brave ones said, ‘You should know that we don’t know anything about this,’” Haaland said.

She said many started her class claiming they couldn’t write or communicate, but eventually found their voice through poetry or other writing. She is currently working with local actress Jane Lind on a class in the prison that not only includes writing, but dramatic reading.

Called “Pathways to Self Sufficiency,” the program emphasized not only academic skills, but workforce and “soft” skills needed when the women re-enter society, said Kim Gillan, workforce development coordinator at the MSU Billings College of Professional Studies and Lifelong Learning. Gillan and Cindy Bell coordinated programming for the grant from the Downtown Billings campus, offering 16 separate programs for the offenders in the women’s prison.

The initial cohort of students graduated from the program with a ready-to-work certificate Nov. 12.

Gillan said the program is designed to be the bricks and mortar that helps the women rebuild their lives upon release.

“We feel very strongly that education provides great opportunity,” Gillan reminded the first graduating class. “While we all come from very different backgrounds, education can help you and these classes provided you with the tools and support so that everyone can succeed upon re-entry.”

Graduating wasn’t a cakewalk, however. To qualify for the certification, participants had to complete a minimum of 180 hours of training, including core courses dealing with math, personal finance, communication and work-related soft skills. The second cohort of 15 – 20 students began in early October in a similar curriculum and will include training offered by the Laborers International Union [www] and increased hours for math, reading and writing.

An open-ended literature and arts workshop has been included in the program and students will be offered arts programming including creative writing, the Big Read, and theater. New student cohorts will cycle through the core curriculum every three months.

A number of current inmates are also applying for provisional admission to MSU Billings so they can take some college-level courses while incarcerated. They would then have the opportunity to apply for full admission to the university upon release.

Jo Acton, warden at the Montana Women’s Prison, congratulated the women who were a part of the first graduating class. She also exhorted the small group of women sitting in the audience that “we expect great things.”

Eventually, Gillan said, the cross-training and education can be emulated across the state.

“I think this shows that this type of programming really works, not only the remedial and academic training, but the self-esteem development,” Gillan said.

That kind of self-esteem was evident at graduation, where Darlene Damm told fellow inmates and her faculty what the program meant to her.

She talked about inspiration and hope that many people felt when they saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969. The instructors through Pathways to Self Sufficiency, she said, did much the same by providing education and learning opportunities to women whom many would prefer to ignore.

“Today, we have hope and we have inspiration,” Damm said. “On behalf of the graduates, thank you for showing us the stars.”