Friday's graduation ceremony at Century High School in Pueblo looked like a typical outdoor ceremony, with programs used as fans, students wearing shades, and oldies radio blaring through speakers. But after the ceremony, the thirty graduates didn't get to leave the facility forever. In fact, they didn't even get to leave the campus for the day.
Century High School is a program within Colorado's Youthful Offender System (YOS), a medium security prison housing offenders who committed a violent crime before their 21st birthday.
In their black caps and gowns, accented with maroon and white tassels to match their everyday uniforms, the Class of 2014 received sixteen General Education Development (GED) diplomas, thirteen high school diplomas and one Associates of Applied Science degree from Pueblo Community College. Three offenders who had previously received degrees from Adams State University were also honored.
"I like to see them accomplish something," said Laray McQueary, a 2011 Century graduate who was there to support the Class of 2014. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You may as well remember it while you are here."
Though significantly shorter than a typical high-school graduation, the ceremony recognized the graduates with just as many speakers and just as much applause. "It was good," graduate and student speaker Jarrell Roberts said. "It was the first real ceremony we've had."
Family members who attended the ceremony were able spend the rest of the day with their graduates. "Branden is so smart. To think that he had the opportunity to finish his degree and go on to college -- it's what every mom wants," said Jana Zinser, mother of graduate Branden Fox.
The program is set up so that offenders can continue their education even after they are sentenced. When they first arrive at YOS, their educational records are assessed to determine what credits they need to earn before graduating. If they need too many credits to finish before they turn 21, they work toward a GED. If not, they aim for a high-school diploma.
Students attend classes and work seven periods a day. School is year-round, with three semesters and week-long breaks in between. The classes differ from semester to semester depending on which ones the students need.
Although YOS is specifically for violent offenders, YOS administrative-services manager Shirley Steinbeck noted that there are very few fights at school -- only two this year. "They say education is sacred," Steinbeck pointed out. "That [school] building is sacred, and they do know that."
After Century High School graduation, offenders can continue their education by working toward college degrees. The only credits they cannot earn while incarcerated are general education requirements, because the facility does not yet have teachers for those classes.
The only graduate in all red was twenty-year-old Ezra Haren, the first YOS community college graduate, who received a degree in Business Management from Pueblo Community College.
"I think it's really, really nice that they offer all this," said Stephanie Haren, Ezra's mother. "It's just a sense of accomplishment. It gives them a day to celebrate, a special occasion."
Warden Mike Romero said that YOS is looking forward to more college graduates now that more than half of the offenders housed there are high school graduates. The facility also works with local businesses that are willing to hire felons, bringing them in to meet with students and talk about the potential for jobs after their sentences are up.
Despite the setting, the atmosphere on graduation day was cheerful and lighthearted. Students received their diplomas to raucous applause and encouragements of "That's my boy!" and "I love you!" coming from both family and fellow inmates.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"It's a good day," Roberts said in his opening speech. "The paper we receive today shows more than what we accomplished. It shows what we are capable of."
Some graduates have only a few months left in their sentences, while others still must serve a few years. But they were all congratulated on their step toward a different future on the other side of the fence. "With the tools provided to us here, we can outshine our adversity and pursue a life of happiness," Roberts said.
From our archives: "Will juvenile lifers get a reprieve? Inside Colorado Supreme Court hearing."