Ten Delaware prisoners earned their high school diplomas Wednesday. The ceremony offered both a taste of normalcy and a reminder of circumstance.
They marched, like all graduates, to the brassy sound of Pomp and Circumstance.
They wore, like all graduates, polyester robes and mortar board caps.
They heard, like all graduates, inspirational speeches sprinkled with laugh lines.
It all felt familiar, so familiar you could forget for a moment that the robes covered white jumpsuits and that the graduation march came from a Bose clock radio rather than a high school band.
So goes graduation day at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Delaware’s largest prison. For every dose of the ordinary, there was some reminder of the circumstances.
In all, ten men graduated. They earned full high-school diplomas and a 90-minute ceremony to celebrate the accomplishment.
Jerome Sullins is 33 and in prison for the second time. He dropped out of Wilmington’s Thomas McKean High School in 9th grade, later earning a GED during his first prison stint. Wednesday’s ceremony capped a long and uneven educational journey. It also gave him a chance to see his wife, Madinah, and his three daughters.
“Any day I get to see them is a beautiful day,” he said.
Sullins, like many of his classmates, hopes the diploma will help him land a job when he’s released.
“Whatever one pays the most,” he said with a laugh.
Sullins expects to get out of prison in 2026.
Kevin Robinson will likely be at Vaughn forever. The gregarious 27-year-old is serving a life sentence. Barring a miracle, his diploma will never land him a job on the outside. It will, however, endure as a source of pride.
“Just knowing that I can do it, knowing that I have done it, giving it to my mom so she can be proud of it–that’s enough for me,” he said.
Robinson spoke on behalf of his classmates, following speeches from Department of Corrections Commissioner Robert Coupe and Governor Jack Markell.
Robinson’s remarks were brief, but he spoke with an easy confidence. He mostly thanked his teachers. Delaware’s Department of Education has almost 50 staff devoted to prisoner education, and one teacher committed full-time to the diploma program at Vaughn.
“Trust me, I know that it’s not easy encouraging people that’s been labeled as the worst that society has to offer,” Robinson said.
As the graduates crossed the stage, friends, family members, officials, and prison personnel cheered–all in open and joyful defiance of a sign on the visitation room wall that read “LOW TALKING ONLY.”
After the ceremony ended, prisoners had 45 minutes to chat with loved ones and pose for pictures. Some held hands and prayed. Others hugged and laughed. The happy din echoed off the cinder-block walls, interrupted only by the booming voice of a prison guard.
“Alright, gentleman, time to go,” the guard said.
With that, the graduates marched back toward their cells, a large door swinging shut behind them.