Con Ed

Graduation day for Idaho prisoners


As the seasons go, graduation day arrived a little early last week. But for the small cross-section of Idahoans donning the traditional mortarboard and gown and walking in step to "Pomp and Circumstance" last Thursday, their diplomas couldn't have come soon enough.

For these graduates, there were no all-night parties following the ceremony. There were no newly purchased cars wrapped in big red bows. There wasn't even a shiny white iBook G4 waiting to be taken to the university. But for parents like Eloise Mercer, watching her child receive a high school diploma symbolized a life passage more profound than it will be for most Boise area seniors destined to toss their caps this June. That is because Mercer's celebration, and nearly 200 others, took place inside the not-so-warm-and-friendly confines of the Idaho State Correctional Institution-a.k.a. prison.

"I never thought I'd see the day he (Chip, her incarcerated son) would be doing this," Mercer said. "I honestly feel he has the chance now of really making a life change."

With diploma in hand, Chip Mercer, 44, looked back at his battle with drugs-and the sale of them which landed him behind bars for more than 10 years-and called it what it is: his past.

"I have a new attitude on life-that I can do it," Mercer said. "My goal is to run a small business one day doing computer maintenance and running small-scale networking systems."

Although Mercer is close to being released and plans to study computing through Boise State University, dreams like his are being realized by offenders currently under incarceration. Of the inmates who graduated last week, 119 received vocational education degrees in fields such as carpentry, electrical wiring and plumbing. The recent growth of the vocational education program helped make Thursday's event the largest graduation in Idaho prison history.

While the high school education program is vital to ensuring an offender's success upon release, prison officials also believe it is just a first step. A huge factor, they say, in keeping past offenders from becoming multiple ones is whether they can find a steady job once on the outside.

"If you don't leave here with some job skills, you're missing the boat," said Thomas Beauclair, director for the Idaho Department of Correction, who along with Governor Dirk Kempthorne addressed the graduates and shook their hands upon receiving their diplomas.

Even inmates like former logger Don Lowry, who at 70 years old was the most senior diploma recipient, are in tune with the potential benefits of vocational education.

"The treehuggers have pretty much ruined logging as I knew it. I may need more schooling now," Lowry said.

As officials laud the promise of the academic and vocational programs and praise the fine work of the teachers who run them, they are also realistic about the programs' futures.

"Anything in the budget is subject to not being funded or being reduced," Kempthorne told BW in an interview following the ceremony. "But what expectations can we have for inmates who get released with no education or job skills? I'm trying to get lawmakers to look at this as an investment, not an expenditure."

While a steady stream of inmates lined up to have the Governor autograph their graduation programs-some of the men letting their backs double as a makeshift tabletop for the Governor-one mother told Kempthorne about her son who was in prison for the fourth time.

"She told me, 'Finally I think my son might make it, because this time he's equipped for the real world,'" Kempthorne said. "How can you argue with that?"