SPRINGFIELD — For Rob Apple and his classmates, Thursday’s graduation didn’t bring pomp and circumstance or caps and gowns.
Instead, the 62 Mike Durfee State Prison inmates received their GED (high school equivalency) diplomas and other certification. They hope it marks the first step of a successful transition to the outside world.
For Apple, most of his adult life has been spent inside prison walls and fences.
“I’ve committed three felonies, and I’ve been in and out of prison for 28 years,” he said. “This life is mine. It isn’t much, but it’s all I’ve got.”
Besides completing their GED, inmates could receive a Career Readiness Certificate through the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation.
“During that three-hour course, they learn workforce proficiency. They receive the platinum, gold, silver or bronze classification,” said Deputy Warden Jennifer Stanwick.
Inmates could also participate in the “Bring Your ‘A’ Game To Work” program, she said.
“It’s an eight-hour course that teaches work ethics,” she said. “They also learn soft skills, such as attendance and attire.”
MDSP inmates spend an average of 18 months at the facility, meaning they will enter the workforce and the rest of the outside world, Stanwick said.
“When it comes to employability, they have to mark the box that they’re a felon,” she said. “But you can also show that you learned skills and tools while in prison, you completed your GED and you scored a gold certificate.”
The prison education programs are a good investment not only for inmates but also for society, Stanwick said. Studies show that education cuts recidivism, or a return to prison, she said.
“The White House has issued a statement that 1 of 3 adults in the U.S. of working age has a criminal record,” she said. “What does that mean? For every $1 we spend on prison education, it brings back $4 to $45 in taxpayer savings.”
For the inmates, the GED and other programs offer a second chance.
Apple, who lived in Martin, has been convicted of attempted murder and aggravated assault. He has lost his family, who no longer wants to associate with him. And he has struggled with alcohol and other stumbling blocks that have led him back to prison.
But he doesn’t make excuses or apologies. He speaks openly about the decisions — good and bad — that he has made.
“The power of choice makes you think,” he said.
Apple wants to share his story with others. So do about a dozen other inmates who, like him, are part of the new “Writing For Re-Entry” program at the Springfield prison.
Through their writing, inmates open up about their past mistakes and the future direction of their lives
By sharing his story, Apple wants to help others deal with their mistakes or avoid the wrong path. “I want to pass along my knowledge,” he said.
For Mount Marty College professor Jim Reese, that’s the kind of “opening up” process that he wants to see in offering the course for inmates. Reese, himself an author, has offered a similar course for years at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp.
Reese noted the state and federal prisons are different institutions with different needs. However, he uses a similar approach with each individual, regardless of personal background or classroom setting.
“Whether it’s Mount Marty or one of the prisons, they’re all students,” he said.
Three different classes will be offered during the next year through the South Dakota Department of Corrections (DOC), Reese said. Two will be offered at Springfield, with the third one at the South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre
“We just finished the pilot program here at Springfield,” Reese said. “The next one will be Springfield with DDN (Digital Dakota Network) to Pierre, and the third one will be at Pierre with a DDN to Springfield.”
At the end of the year, the DOC inmates’ work will be published in a book entitled “Off The Cuff.”
The writing program allows inmates to explore their criminal behavior, Reese said.
“You can lock up a person and let them out after so long,” he said. “Teaching a trade to an offender during incarceration is beneficial, but you also have to help them tap into the emotional instabilities that brought them to prison in the first place.
“Writing, art and, more importantly, education in corrections helps open that door. If a person never comes to terms with themselves, one angry person will be released back into society.”
MMC student Audry Miiller of Vermillion, who transcribed the inmates’ stories for computerization, said she was making her first visit to the MDSP grounds Thursday.
“I see a side of humanity that you don’t know from watching TV (crime shows). The inmates made bad decisions, no doubt about it, and they find themselves in situations they don’t care to be,” she said.
“But it’s also great to meet the prisoners and to hear their stories. When you type the stories, you don’t hear their ‘voice.’ Today, I heard their ‘voice,’ and it meant a lot.”
Stanwick also pointed to the humanity of the prisoners’ written work.
“These inmates know what they want when they get out of prison,” she said. “This is their chance to tell their story and to do something different with their lives. And this education is something you can’t take from somebody.”
During Thursday’s program, the “Writing For Re-Entry” participants read their pieces. One talked about his culture, while another talked about seeking forgiveness from his father. One inmate spoke about the joy of attending a drive-in movie with his family while a child.
Still another inmate spoke of his regrets in damaging his life.
“I would ask to use the brain that God gave me instead of one poisoned by cocaine, meth and vodka,” he said.
Kaemingk addressed the inmates, offering them encouragement.
“You have days when you don’t want to get out of bed and do it all over again. But you just put one foot in front of another and know that you can move on,” he said.
“Perseverance develops character, and character develops hope.”
Afterwards, Kaemingk told the Press & Dakotan he was impressed with the ceremony and the inmates’ desire to improve themselves.
“I’m proud of each and every one of them. They have made the determination to do something with their life rather than continue on the same old path as in the past,” he said.
“These men will become our neighbors. Their children will play with our children. We want to help them become integrated back into the community.”
MDSP Warden Bob Dooley agreed.
“These inmates took the initiative and worked hard to get their GED,” he said. “We’re very proud of them and their accomplishments.”
In his writing, Apple offered life lessons for his fellow inmates.
“In the fall of 1989, I was freshly married and preparing to go into the Army. I was working, and my life was pretty good,” he said, adding the couple was expecting a child.
But shortly before he was shipped off to the Army, he became involved in an altercation that brought the criminal charges.
“The next few weeks, my world as I knew it came crashing down,” he said. ”I never saw my wife free after that. My child got a new daddy, and all these years later, she wants nothing to do with me. My life changed forever.”
Apple also endured the brutal prison life. Inmates often divided into groups, many times for protection.
“I remember the weak signing up with the first gang they could find,” he said. “Some were beyond weak and took their lives. (I) couldn’t believe that, one day, they were talking, 19-20 years old, about life and things we were always going to do, then they’re dead.
“You came to accept just how broken our lives were. Seeing a sex offender or a snitch get beat into unconsciousness, that was part of my life I choose to share today.”
The choices we make are very powerful, he said. Choose carefully who you befriend and the path you take, and choose a new path if things go wrong, he advised.
“So think your choices through. Don’t make short cuts,” he said. “Live your life like it means something. Always remember, this life and these choices are yours, so live them your way.”
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