Graduates' caps and gowns replaced prison uniforms last week as 14 current and three former inmates at the Lafourche Parish jail received diplomas.
Two graduated from college, one with a bachelor's and the other with an associate's degree. Fifteen others, including three former inmates, received their high school equivalency diplomas.
About 45 family members, friends and law enforcement officials attended the ceremony at Covenant Church in Gray.
"Use this day as a stepping stone to a brighter future," said Class Representative Christopher White. "I want you to show the world that we are more than a statistic."
White, 29, earned a bachelor's degree in arts and applied communication from Ashland University and is part of the jail's Transitional Work Program. He also earned minors in business management and business administration.
White said he didn't want to share his crime, just that "I made a stupid decision." He said his brother died, which led to the decision, and shortly after he went away, his wife died.
White encouraged his fellow graduates not to let their past mistakes define them and said sacrifices must be made to reach goals. He gave up a year of work-release to finish his degree and did so while working 80-100 hours a week.
"To balance a full-time job and do schoolwork, it's not easy," he said. "I had to give up everything that was not related to self-improvement: television, socializing, recreational activities and anything else that detracted from achieving my educational goals."
"Nobody will do for you like you will do for you," he added.
With his degree, White now hopes to open an electrical business.
Lafourche Sheriff Craig Webre told the graduates success requires knowledge.
"You have a degree, diploma or certification and a sense of self-satisfaction that no one can take from you," he said. "I want you to stand before any other person who is in your situation ... and you can be a symbol to let them know this is achievable."
The fully accredited college degrees were awarded by Ashland University of Ohio. It has a correctional education program in Louisiana and other states. Kimberly Evans, Ashland's state director for Louisiana, said the program hopes to start in Terrebonne Parish next year.
Educational achievements improve inmates' chances of making a successful transition back into the community, Webre said after the ceremony. Inmates face many barriers to in that journey, and a degree is a valuable tool for finding jobs.
"The field of academics is a field of individual achievement," Webre said, "and it shows the employers they didn't simply spend their time incarcerated just sitting there waiting for release."
This article originally appeared on The Courier: Lafourche Parish jail inmates earn diplomas