On June 18th 2019, Cotton Correctional Facility held their first ever Graduation ceremony for the graduates of Jackson Community College. Students were able to invite two guests to the ceremony which was held in the prison Gymnasium. Josh was chosen to speak on behalf of his graduating class, which he felt was a great honour, and a really proud moment for both Josh and his family. Josh would like to share with you the wonderful speech he made at this ceremony.

“I want to thank everyone from Jackson college for supporting the PEI program it is truly life changing for all of us here today. Please give a round of applause for Ms Riggins, Mrs Scott and PEI’s Ginger overlord Bobby B.

There is one group that deserves special attention and appreciation I would like our graduates to stand up, and put their hands together for the families , who have come out to support us on this momentous occasion. I would have never made it this far without the encouragement and support of my Aunt Kae and big brother Brian.

Let me tell you I NEVER saw myself as a college student, much less a college graduate. I was born on the Westside of Detroit, moved from home to home and school to school. I had a learning disability and to this day have ADHD. My Mother and her wife were killed in a hate crime by our next door neighbour and I watched my father wither away and die of Aids just 6 months before my mothers were killed. So I was orphaned by 14, needless to say I was a pretty angry child. Then, while living on the streets at age 16 I became a gang member. Just a few years later, I was in prison for Life Without Parole, just a few months after my 18th birthday.

So, 24 years ago I entered the prison system as a new convict, with no parents, no siblings, no wife, at that time prison didn’t seem like a place where I could flourish and prosper. I felt there was no hope. I was sure I would just waste away as I waited to die in prison. For my first decade of incarceration, I acted like a savage, living up to the low expectations the system had for me. I was fuelled by anger and rage at a society that I felt had betrayed me.

Yet over the years, I slowly found things that inspired me to learn. I gained enlightenment through books and self-reflection. Then writing became a means for me to exercise my demons and express my frustrations at the system.

Then I heard about the college returning to the prison system, I admit I was intrigued. But let me be honest; I didn’t transfer into this prison three years ago for college. I still felt I lacked the skills for college. But once I was here, I dipped my toe in the water, little by little I gained the confidence I needed to take on more and more classes. And finally here I am – a college graduate.

Yet, it was words I remembered from my past that really inspired me to be brave enough to get into the arena and see what I was made of. These words had come from an old timer who I looked up to years ago; he had told me something that would change my outlook on life and my purpose in prison. When talking to him about what I thought was gangster, he looked at me crazy and said “Real gangsters- do real things young dog”. I didn’t understand what he meant using power and influence to build lasting positive establishments in our communities, like schools and community centres, not destroying the hood with gun fire and gangsterism.

Through our conversations, I realised that our duty to our communities and the individuals we call big brother is to empower them to reach their highest potential. To create safe places for our children to grow and learn in, but this can only be done by having the skills to create real change.

Bro Bro’s words really stuck with me, and I awoke to the fact that it’s easy to destroy; I had been doing that for most of my life. I had been pouring out my pain onto others, making them pay for how I felt society had wronged me. I once rose to any negative challenge people placed before me. Yet, it took some time for me to understand that the REAL CHALLENGE is to use our skills and talents to build something positive, to mold ourselves into MEN of MERIT who will now make a positive difference in the communities we have taken so much from.

What I didn’t realise at the time, was that change is great and change I did, but all our hopes and aspirations are meaningless, unless we have the SKILL SET to make our Dreams Into Reality. That skill set comes through higher education. The wealth of knowledge that we have collected through and interactions with the professors here in the PEI program, are priceless. They are gems that no man, no prison, no one can ever steal from us. The degree’s these men are receiving today are the tools they will use to craft better lives for themselves and their families.

Yet for some of us, prison has become an Academy for our callings as the future leaders of our communities. For us our college degree’s are the tools we will use not only to shape our own lives but also to shape our communities. Our degrees make it possible to have a positive impact on the places we once violated with our anti-social behaviour. That is why I am so grateful for this education. That is why you see me often passing out books and helping guys get their classes lined up.

For years I have had dreams of being able to give back, Dreams of working with At-Risk Youth, creating a Gang Intervention Program that could change hearts and minds, and doing something to create Tech jobs in Urban Detroit.

But all of that was just a dream without the skill set to write a proper business plan, understand accounting, know how to influence Government and be able to Effectively sell my ideas to the people in power. Now with our educations we can feel confident that our dreams are attainable. Now, we are dedicated to being life long learners. Now, we are trained to keep honing our skills and sharpening our talents. I know most of you feel the same way.

I also know that many of you have overcome you own adversity to get here; many of you have dreams just like I do and this college experience is helping you make those dreams a reality.

Last what I really want you to know is; that ALL of you, in the bleachers and down here graduating, are brave and and bold men, to step into the arena of higher education. There is no greater challenge than to go against the low expectations of THIS system and the many people who would love to see us all fail. I’m here to tell you today, that these critic’s don’t matter, their words from the sidelines have no value. It is far too easy to talk about how the strong man stumbles, than to be the man actually doing it. The critic isn’t in the fight, he’s so afraid to fail that he never even attempts the arena. You deserve the credit, you are fighting to evolve as men and to fulfil your dreams. You are the Warriors in this arena. So, always be Proud Of Yourselves and when things get tough, remember all the adversity you’ve already overcome to get where you are today.

So fellas I Salute you as the future leaders of our communities, the warriors of intellect and education. You are the catalysts for change that our world so desperately needs. Keep fighting the good fight no matter what our critics say and persevere in the direction of your Dreams!”

I think it is safe to say that Josh’s speech went down very in the hall, and that everyone in attendance was impressed and moved by how well he spoke that day. He had worked incredibly hard on the speech, and it meant so much to him to be able to speak at the ceremony. Below are a few more words from Josh on what the Graduation Day itself was like.

On the morning of my graduation I got up as usual and headed to work, to discover my amazing boss had given me the day off so I could prepare! At 8.30 I was called to visit with the two people I love the most – my Aunt Kae, and Brian Alexander who is like my brother and spiritual advisor at times.  They listened to my nervous chatter and we shared brunch before I had to go and finish getting ready. I was nervous at the prospect of having to speak in front of nearly 200 of my fellow college students, 18 fellow graduates, and our friends and family. I was really impressed and proud of how well the recreational workers had tidied up the Gym for this special occasion.  The Gym was slowly filling up and I could see our prison administrators gathering with members of the Jackson College facility, who were all in their cap and gowns.

I was running a little late and was quickly ushered into one of the side rooms where the Director of our Prison Education Initiative (PEI) Bobby, was helping the graduates get ready and into their cap and gowns.  Once we were all set to go we lined up and walked into the now full Gymnasium! Fellow prisoner college students filled the bleachers on the right and the floor had been set up with chairs for the families of the graduates. On one side of the podium were seated the Prison officials, including Heidi Washington the Director of the whole prison system, Heather Gay the Director of Education for the prison service, as well as our Prison Warden and staff.  We were led by the Jackson College staff, and I caught a glimpse of Kae and Brian before we took our seats.

The speeches started with Bobby, the PEI Director, who also hosted the event.  Heather Gay then made a speech focusing on the importance of education, followed by a speech by the President of Jackson College.  Next to the podium was a former prisoner who is now a successful Detroit business owner, and I was surprised to realise his prisoner number was very close to mine.  I was then introduced onto the stage by Bobby, and as I walked up to the podium the weight of how much this meant to me hit me hard. I started my speech by acknowledging some of my fellow graduates and the amount of work they had put in. How proud I was of myself to be graduating, especially as a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society member, with honors.  I thanked Kae and Brian for their constant support and encouragement, and also mentioned how proud by parents would have been to see me graduating with a College degree. It is a really special moment, and I am still not sure how I got through that speech!! 

Following the conclusion of my speech the graduates were individually called up to receive our diplomas, and I was last onto the stage.  When they called my name they said Joseph, which to me was quite a magical moment as Joseph was my Father’s name.  

After the ceremony was overall the graduates were allowed to stay in the Gymnasium to visit with our families and speak with the other members of our College facility.  Members of the prison’s Food Technology class made cookies for everyone which was great. I got to introduce Kae and Brian to some of my fellow students, Bobby, and also my boss.  I have grown so much from this experience and continue to keep bettering myself.”

Josh was also asked some questions about his degree was he responded to below with some great answers.

What is the name of your degree and how long did it take?

I have spent the last two years working on my Associates Degree in Applied Science: Business, which was done through Jackson College.  

At what College did you take your degree?

Jackson College.  The college Professor’s would come into the prison to take our classes.  We would do night classes which lasted for three hours a night. We would take notes at lectures, take tests and do projects.

What parts of your degree did you find most difficult?

The hardest part of my course was the Mathematics and Statistics sections.  Although my Professor, Mrs Fellows, was great and walked us through every step.  We also have some student tutors, including fellow inmate Todd Griffen who spent hours each week helping to tutor us in Maths.  One of the things that made the course more difficult was the fact that we do not have access to the internet or computers in order to do proper research for our projects.

Another difficulty facing inmates who want to take a degree, especially those inmate who have longer than 8 years left on their sentence is that face that they are not eligible for any grants to help pay for their education. Therefore I have to pay out of pocket nearly 800 dollars per 5 credits. I have been very blessed because I have taken a few semesters at 11 credits per semester so my sponsors have really looked out for me. Most of the lifers in school can only do one or two classes per semester. I really got to see what I was made of during those heavy load semesters but it taught me a lot about myself and even more about how important good study habits are and self-discipline is.

What parts of your degree did you enjoy the most?

I really enjoyed my Business classes, and through hard work and study I have been able to to keep a 4.0 GPA which I am really proud of.

What opportunities has your further education given you?

Through working with the College staff during this degree process, I am know a Jackson College Student Ambassador, as well as a Teachers aide for the following classes: Computer Information Systems, Psychology, and Physical Geography. To be a TA you have to be hand picked by the professor and have a 4.0 GPA in the class you are assisting in. Then as a Jackson College Student Ambassador I represent the college help pass books out, help register people for classes as well as some light student advisory work. This gives me purpose in an area I really believe in – which is education behind bars.

Do you have any plans to go further with your education?

I plan to keep studying hard and once this Business is completed, to do a degree in the Arts sector. I would also like to Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, as well as some Project Management certificates to round out my knowledge.

What would you like to do with your Education if you were in the Free World?

I want to work in urban development, and create cheap tiny homes in shipping containers for low income families. I will have the skills to market ideas that help the community I once violated with my antisocial behaviour. My education is about giving me the skill set I need to make those dreams a reality. To me having those dreams is not enough with out the skill set to make those dreams a reality. Education is so important because it gifts us with those skills and opens our minds to a world full of possibilities. Education has to be the focal point of all urban development projects, affordable housing is not enough if there are no programs to help those low income families climb out of poverty to a place where success can become generational. I envision tiny home communities in the inner city that are coupled with learning centres and guided assistance to get people into college and vocational trades without saddling them with more debt that in turn creates more poverty. That is my dream. For me empathy and rehabilitation are empty words if convicts don’t take actions to make our communities better places. My rehabilitation has no value to me or society unless I can find a way to atone for my past misdeeds. I have an inner need to balance the scales, to repay my debt to society with action. I knew I needed education to effectively give back and Jackson College and my sponsors who paid for my education gave me that opportunity.

Thank you everyone for taking the time to read this blog. Josh has wanted this out in the world for some time now, and is so pleased you can all now share in that special day, and join his friends and family in feeling incredibly proud of him and how far he has come. Vicki.