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Inaugural Commencement at Indiana Women’s Prison: Breaking Barriers Behind Bars

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From conviction to courage, tears to triumph and ambition to achievement, the Indiana Women’s Prison’s inaugural commencement echoed the resilience and determination that define the human spirit.

Behind the barred walls meant to keep them locked up, these remarkable women journeyed through the halls of academia. They defied the odds, proving that success knows no bounds.

RELATED: The community has ideas to redevelop the old Indiana Women’s Prison — if they can get the state to listen

“Success takes ambition. Success takes courage. It takes heart, humor, perseverance and passion. Success takes talent. Every one of you has proven that you have what it takes to achieve all of your dreams,” said Indiana Women’s Prison Warden LaShelle Brown.

“At times there were tears and you wanted to throw in the towel, but nevertheless, here you stand.”

Indiana Women’s Prison

Breaking boundaries behind bars: Indiana Women’s Prison’s Inaugural Commencement
Warden LaShelle Brown speaks on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 during the Women’s College Partnership at Indiana Women’s Prison and Marian College commencement ceremony at the Indiana Women’s Prison. SCOTT ROBERSON | Indiana Department of Correction

Inside the prison’s chapel, over forty women currently enrolled in the Women’s College Partnership (WCP) witnessed seven of their sisters walk across the stage in their cap and gowns to receive their associate degrees from Marian University – some women walked twice to receive their bachelor’s degrees.

“Two weeks from today I will drop off my daughter at college. It is not lost to me the advantages she will have, like laptops to help with her homework or knowing she’s a phone call away from mom,” said Indiana Department of Corrections Commissioner Christina Reagle to the graduates.

“This is nowhere near as hard as what you all have done. Reflect on your journey. Celebrate it and be proud of yourself.”

Breaking boundaries behind bars: Indiana Women’s Prison’s Inaugural Commencement
Marian. University President Daniel Elsener speaks to graduates on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 during a commencement ceremony at the Indiana Women’s Prison. SCOTT ROBERSON | Indiana Department of Correction

WCP is a collaboration between Marian University and the University of Notre Dame that offers a liberal arts education to incarcerated persons at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

The Notre Dame Programs for Education in Prison (NDPEP) administers and supports this partnership, and Marian University confers degrees on participating students.

Although WCP launched in January 2019, because of the pandemic, the graduates of the program were not able to walk for their degrees until now.

Marian University president Daniel J. Elsener broke the ice at the commencement by cracking a few jokes in his welcome speech.

“My staff has said they loved working with you guys. I guess because you’re more mature than an 18-year-old freshman. I admire your dedication. You bring a lot of elements to this degree,” said Elsener.

“With this, I encourage you to live out the values of Marian University. Be responsible stewards of your gifts and talent.”

Inaugural commencement ceremony

Incarcerated individuals celebrate on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 following the Women’s College Partnership at IWP and Marian College commencement ceremony at the Indiana Women’s Prison. SCOTT ROBERSON | Indiana Department of Correction

WCP graduate Michelle Williams gave remarks on behalf of the graduating class.

She confessed that she prepared for her speech by practicing for hours because she knows how important it is for everyone in the room to understand how important the women of the prison are.

“The journey has been long but so worth it. Even through COVID, we didn’t give up. The staff didn’t give up teaching us. The humanity in all of this is recognized by all of you sitting here with us today. When you think of jail, you often think about failure,” said Williams.

Speaking of her own failures, she said growing up she was devoid of inspiration. She felt rejected by the world, hung out with the wrong crowd and dropped out of school in ninth grade.

She later became homeless and addicted to drugs.

Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Christiana Reagle speaks to graduates on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 during a commencement ceremony at the Indiana Women’s Prison. SCOTT ROBERSON | Indiana Department of Correction

Williams said she never finished a single thing in her life until now.

“I look at my sisters and thank each and every one of them in how they inspire my health from top to bottom,” said Williams.

“It took me 37 years of climbing and clawing out of a self-loathing pit, and when someone finally threw me a lifeline, I realized this isn’t where life ends; It’s where it begins.”

Looking towards the future

Graduates paid tribute to alumna Lisa Van Morrison who received her associate degree in 2020 but passed away from cancer several weeks ago.

The graduates remembered Morrison as an excellent student who had begun earning her bachelor’s degree through Marian’s online program after her release several months ago.

Although Lisa never got the opportunity to walk across the stage and hear her name called as she received her degree, a chair sat reserved for her with her cap and gown. Her parents received the diploma in her honor.

L-R Incarcerated individuals and guests arrive at the Indiana Women’s Prison chapel on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 for the Women’s College Partnership at IWP and Marian College at the Indiana Women’s Prison. SCOTT ROBERSON | Indiana Department of Correction

With unwavering heart and spirit, the WCP graduates have shown that education is not just a pathway, but a beacon of hope, lighting the way toward a brighter future.

In their steps, onlookers witness the transformative power of knowledge, and in their stories, they find the testament of the indomitable strength that resides within everyone.

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at 317-607-5792 or by email jadej@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON

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