PENDLETON, Ind. —
Christopher Lewis’ walk across the front of his graduating class to receive his college diploma Friday was especially important to him.
The Pendleton Correctional Facility inmate reveled in his chance to graduate cum laude from Ball State University with his bachelor’s of general studies degree, even more so because he missed his high school graduation ceremony while he was incarcerated.
“It feel great,” said Lewis, who was convicted in 2003 of murder, armed robbery, criminal confinement and battery.
Lewis hopes to continue his education by studying for a master’s degree in sociology.
“I want to be an example to my peers,” he said. “I want to be a mentor.”
Lewis was one of 52 associate’s and bachelor’s degree recipients to graduate from Ball State and Grace College on Friday at the Pendleton Correctional Facility. The inmates received their diplomas as their family members proudly looked on in the campus’ religious services building.
It took Lewis six years to complete his degree from Ball State’s correctional education program. He said he never had any doubts that he could do it.
Another inmate, Michael Newman, earned his associate’s degree from Ball State on Friday. Like Lewis, Newman hopes to help people one day as a counselor.
“I’m pretty excited,” he said. “I’ve been out of school for a long time.”
Newman said the most difficult part of earning his degree while in prison was taking the time to study and not getting distracted by noise in the prison dorms. He is serving a 50-year sentence after being convicted in 2006 of possession of cocaine, according to Indiana Department of Corrections records.
“Class of 2010” signs decorated the building at the ceremony as a parade of proud graduates in black and beige caps and gowns entered what used to the be prison’s gym and sat down in front of their families. Inspirational songs by the prison choir punctuated the ceremony.
Prison Assistant Superintendent for Re-entry John George compared the graduates’ education journey to famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s first flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
“I’m sure during his flight, probably halfway across the Atlantic, he asked himself, ‘Should I turn back or go on?’” George told the graduates. “I’m sure you as graduates have had doubts. Should I turn back or go on? You went on.”
Isaac Randolph, a retired Indianapolis firefighter and founder of Good Works Indiana, was the keynote speaker for the event. Randolph encouraged the inmate graduates to create companies when they were released that would employ other former offenders.
“It was difficult for ex-offenders to get jobs before the downturn in the economy,” he said. “Be the person who hires ex-offenders. I think here is the next entrepreneurs for the next decade.”
Randolph told the graduates they were not alone in their education journey, and pointed out that, although they might have had doubts about their own abilities, their families never had doubts that they could earn their degrees.
“The key is to come out and be ready,” Randolph said. “Your success will be measured by how you prepare for life outside of these walls.
“I’m no different than you. We’ve all done bad things. The difference between me and you is I didn’t get caught; I stopped before I got caught. We all are flawed from the time we take our first breath.”
Pendleton Correctional Facility was one of the first satellite sites in the early 1990s for Ball State’s distance education program, according to prison staff. Students earning degrees Friday from Ball State and Grace College completed the same curriculum as students on the campuses of each respective institution.
By the numbers
Pendleton Correctional Facility inmates receiving college degrees Friday:
Ball State University associate of arts degree: 26
Ball State University bachelor of general studies degree: 13
Grace College associate of science degree: 9
Grace College bachelor of science degree: 4