Former Inmate Returns to Prison for Graduation

Russell HawthorneRussell Hawthorne's education at Coffee Correctional Facility saw him return to take part in the first graduating class of the welding and diesel maintenance program. Photo Credit: MyAJC.com

By Christopher Zoukis

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 be behind bars. He went back to join his graduating class and receive his welding certificate. The prison education program he went through while incarcerated did exactly 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 gave him the opportunity to go back and celebrate his achievement with those that 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, an institution that has spent over $2 million to build training centres, each in excess of 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 skills that are in high demand but 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 aim of re-entry programming is 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 more 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. In fact, CoreCivic is actually a newer name on an old company. You may be more familiar with 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 prisoner, prison staff and public wellbeing, 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, 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). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.