The wooden pews, the red carpet and the whispering crowd of 45 people almost make you forget that the chapel is tucked away behind rows of barbed wire, countless metal gates and guards in every direction.
It’s the all-male Florida State Prison in Raiford, the same institution where the serial killer Ted Bundy was electrocuted. But Thursday afternoon, in the chapel, it was a day of celebration as 15 inmates were honored with their electrician’s certificate from North Florida Technical College.
Theirs was the first class at the prison to graduate from the State Contracted Electrical Program.
“Our students have overcome many obstacles,” Antonio Carlisle, the prison’s education supervisor, said. “They have shown great perseverance. Some were told they would never graduate. But, today, that has been proven wrong.”
The program began a little over a year ago. Every weekday from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., students met in a room in the West Unit, going over expectations, book work, tool safety and skill application. They also had access to the frame of a house, where they practiced the skills they learned.
“From the outside, people think that time stands still in prison,” James Ingram, a 44-year-old student and graduate, said. “But, when we are in here, doing things and applying our time, things keep going. That way, when we leave, we are not too far behind.”
The program “has given us all a sense of education and a sense of self-worth and a chance in the future,” Ingram said. The 750-hour program offered three categories to the required course, all necessary for graduation, according to Terry Arthur, the electrical vocational professor who headed up the program. These included a Core Curriculum course, Electric 1 and Electric 2.
George Devard, a 30-year-old graduate, said the program works and recommends it to any inmate wanting to better himself.
“I believe that as long as I apply myself out in the real world, I will be able to accomplish anything,” Devard said. “Mr. Arthur always taught us that.”
Inmates were selected for the program based on a variety of factors, such as upcoming release date, programming needs, prior training opportunities and disciplinary history, according to Michelle Glady, the Florida Department of Corrections’ communications director.
Of the 40 inmates who originally showed up to orientation, 20 stuck to it and graduated. Three of those have already been released from prison, one was unable to attend today’s ceremony because he was sick and the other chose not to attend.
The ceremony began at 9 a.m. and was followed by an hour of family visitation and refreshments.
As “Pomp and Circumstance” echoed from the speakers, the graduates entered the chapel wearing gowns with yellow and black tassels, and black caps. They filled the first three rows of the chapel, listening to prayers and guest speakers before they were called by one by one to be handed their certificates.
Brad Bishop, adult and career education coordinator for North Florida Technical College, said the road to receiving the certificate has not been easy for the inmates, who had to stay focused through lockdowns, quarantines and power outages.
“This is not just simply rising above your circumstances,” Bishop said. “This is swimming against the riptide, taking control of your education and changing the narrative of your life.”
Arthur is particularly proud of two of his students.
“When they started learning what was going on in the class, they turned around and started teaching it, which is very helpful in a room with 20 people in it,” Arthur said.
One of those students, Lance Byrd, 49, was recognized with high honors.
“I just like to help people,” Byrd said. “Helping some people that need more help than others is rewarding to me.”
Byrd, who has been in prison for 19 months, will get his chance to help others and apply his new skills starting Friday, when he is expected to be released.
Not only has the program given the inmates an opportunity to learn a trade, it also proved that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to, Bishop said.
“Our graduates proved that every person is redeemable,” he said. “I applaud these men for being leaders.”
When wrapping up his speech, Bishop addressed the group of men and said: “I challenge you to keep going. Leave this place and build on the new person you have become.”