Former Inmate Returns to Prison for Graduation

Former Inmate Returns to Prison for Graduation

Russell Hawthorne, or Rusty to his inner circle, had been released from Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls, Georgia — but he returned— gladly.

He didn’t go back to being behind bars. He went back to join his graduating class and receive his welding certificate. While incarcerated, the prison education program he went through did precisely what it was supposed to do — fill him with confidence, reduce his chances of recidivism, give him life skills, and help him find a good job. Although he’d already been released, the program also allowed him to go back and celebrate his achievement with those who helped him reach his goals and to be honored alongside his peers as part of the first class to graduate from the welding and diesel maintenance training program, a partnership between two technical colleges and the state’s department of correction.

“People ask me why I’d go back to a prison,” Hawthorne said in a media interview. “I am grateful, and I am actually proud to come back.” He choked up during his graduation speech, saying, “I’ve never completed anything like this. It’s something to be proud of, guys.”

Hawthorne benefited from CoreCivic programming, which has spent over $2 million to build training centers, each over 6,300 square feet, at Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, Georgia, and Coffee Correctional Facility. Programs are run in partnership with local post-secondary schools in the area. Courses are designed around high-demand skills but are short on market labor to ensure inmates have the best chance at obtaining a job in their chosen field upon release.

CoreCivic calls itself a “national leader in high-quality corrections and detention management,” whose re-entry programming aims to build communities and reduce recidivism.

According to CoreCivic’s data, educational prison programs reduce recidivism by 43 percent. The company has been designing, optimizing, building, and managing government real estate projects and properties for over 30 years. “We know that education and training dramatically increase the odds of success after release. We can provide new opportunities that will, hopefully, change lives,” says Damon Hininger, CoreCivic’s President and CEO.

But not everyone is on board with CoreCivic’s vision. As the public becomes increasingly aware of and disillusioned with the for-profit prison model, companies like CoreCivic face increasing scrutiny. CoreCivic is a newer name for an old company. You may know its previous name, Corrections Corporation of America. CoreCivic regularly makes the news, including an incident in Tennessee last year when the company’s new facility had to stop taking inmates due to allegations of “inadequate staffing, solitary confinement problems and [use] of excessive force.” (CoreCivic spokesperson Alison Randgaard addressed the allegations as “growing pains.”)

Is there a right or wrong side to this issue? While the for-profit prison model has its fair share of problems that must be addressed in the interest of prisoners, prison staff, and public well-being, we also cannot ignore the fact that this company is actively investing in training, programs, and facilities to provide prison education designed for today’s workforce needs. Is CoreCivic’s strategy working? Ask Russell Hawthorne, who found his education so life-changing that he went back behind prison walls to complete graduation.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014), and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).