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COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC) — During a ceremony at Columbia’s Kirkland Correctional Institution on Friday, a group of four inmates chanted a hymn that repeated the line “I can’t even walk without you holding my hand.”
That afternoon, 14 of those inmates took their next steps toward a better life.
“Great. Words can’t describe it,” said one of them, Jeremy. (The South Carolina Department of Justice requires members of the press to use only inmates’ first names.)
On Friday, 13 recent graduates earned their associate degrees and one his bachelor’s degree while incarcerated through Columbia International University’s Prison Initiative Program.
The program began in 2007, and since then more than a dozen graduating classes or cohorts have earned degrees, with the 13th doing so on Friday.
Inmates must apply and complete an interview process to participate in the program.
“I got into prison eight and a half years ago and didn’t even have a GED,” said Wolfgang, the inmate who earned his bachelor’s degree.
Correctional officials say the program is paying off, although taxpayers’ money isn’t being used because Columbia International University has paid for it since its inception.
South Carolina has the lowest recidivism rate in the country at 19%, according to correctional director Bryan Stirling, which means four out of five inmates do not return to prison within three years of their release.
Among graduates from this program this rate is only 5%, which Stirling described as astonishing.
“It means prison security,” Stirling said. “It means safety in South Carolina. It means safety for our communities, because when these people come out, we hope that they will work in communities and use these degrees to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Upon graduation, inmates serve the remainder of their sentences while serving as either a hospice worker in Kirkland or an assistant chaplain there or at another state prison.
In addition to the challenges and work that come with earning a degree, Friday’s graduates overcame another obstacle: their degrees were delayed by a year due to the pandemic, with classes being taught in person by CIU staff in prison , became impossible.
“It was the most exhausting experience we’ve ever had, but you can overcome anything if you put your mind to it,” said Jeremy, speaking on behalf of his classmates at the ceremony.
This was not like most degrees in many ways.
Perhaps most notably, unlike most graduation ceremonies, cheering after the reading of each graduate’s name on the way to receiving their diploma was not only permitted, but encouraged in the presence of loved ones.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life doing bad things, and to be able to turn the page and be commended for it is great,” said Wolfgang.
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