Nearly 100 offenders earn academic achievement

Story, photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, PIO II, OPEC

Valley State Prison (VSP) Warden Raythel Fisher Jr. is so committed to rehabilitation he did something unthinkable for an Oakland Raiders fan – he invited a former San Francisco 49er onto his turf.

Three-time Super Bowl Champion Bubba Paris was the keynote speaker for a graduation ceremony at VSP, where 97 inmates received their General Educational Development (GED) diplomas. The prison setting was surprisingly fitting for Paris’ talk, in which he shared how he had to overcome his own challenges and accept the things that made him stand out in order to become a success. From his size to his outspokenness, Paris was constantly criticized for being different.

“I used to get pounded in class all the time,” he said. “But what I discovered over time is that the normalcy and perfection you are looking for lives inside of you. I was born perfect in every way to be a pro football player, and I was born perfect in every way to be a motivational speaker. It was just difficult to navigate.”

The people who helped him discover his potential, he shared, included teachers and mentors just like those who educate the inmates of Valley State Adult School, VSP’s accredited school.

“Teaching is an art,” Paris said. “You have to figure out a way to unlock the thing you know a person has. The key to being an effective educator is you have to believe that no matter what, they will give you something to awaken. I commend each teacher here because you found a way to unlock that joy and self-expression.”

His sentiments were echoed by Warden Fisher, who emphasized the added challenges of teaching inside a correctional institution.

“I have so much personal gratitude for the work you do on a daily basis,” he said, addressing the teachers in the room. “It is a very difficult profession that you have chosen.”

Turning to the graduates, Fisher reminded them they should not be defined by their worst day or past mistakes, and instead should spend their energy working toward bright futures.

“You have the ability to use your mind to improve yourself on a daily basis,” he said. “If you wake up in the morning with a goal to be better than the person you were the day before, then you have achieved something.”

Paris used the age-old story of David and Goliath to illustrate what can be achieved if someone is willing to put aside the judgment of others and believe in oneself. With the rest of their lives ahead of them, he said, the graduates should be immensely proud of the challenges they faced in pursuing their educations.

“There are people in this room who may never get out of this prison, but you still have purpose,” he said. “There is a reason you were put on this Earth, and the thing I am most proud of is that each one of you faced the giant and you won.”

The pride was evident on the students’ faces as they crossed the stage to accept their diplomas. Marco Flores, speaking for the graduates, beamed as he joined his peers in celebrating their accomplishments. In accepting his diploma, he said, he clearly understood what it meant. In addition to being a foundation for a better future, it also represents the commitment the students put in to achieve their goals, despite being incarcerated.

“We have not let the hands of the clock represent wasted time,” he said.