For the 88 men who graduated this month from the Lee College Huntsville Center, the road to an associate’s degree was paved with an obstacle uncommon to most students: incarceration in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), some of them for decades.
“You are a select group,” Lee College Pres. Dr. Dennis Brown told the graduates at an intimate and joyous commencement held Saturday, April 26, at the TDCJ Wynne Unit in Huntsville.
The ceremony was attended by dozens of the inmates’ proud family and friends, many of whom wiped away tears as they watched their loved ones march into the unit chapel — black caps and gowns covering their white, prison-issue uniforms.
“The accomplishments that you have achieved are going to be with you for the rest of your life,” Brown continued. “As you move forward from this day, you’ll realize that your chances of returning to this place are slim to none. You have a degree from Lee College, and that degree will serve you well.”
Lee College first began offering courses for credit to offenders in the Texas prison system in 1966. The program, based in Huntsville and operated as a separate extension of the main campus in Baytown, has increased from 182 students in its first year to more than 1,200 students today and growing.
Classes are offered in six TDCJ units and one private state prison, and can lead to degrees and certificates in air conditioning, heating and refrigeration; automotive mechanics; cabinet-making; culinary arts; horticulture; microcomputer applications; truck and heavy equipment operation; and welding technology.
More than 70 percent of offenders who receive no additional education while behind bars will end up back in prison. By comparison, only 10 percent of those who complete two years of college while incarcerated will return, according to Donna Zuniga, dean of the Huntsville Center.
“We are in the business of changing lives through education,” Zuniga said. “Nowhere do the results shine brighter than they do through the lives of former offenders.”
Lee College Huntsville Center graduate Timothy Sneed is one of many success stories. Sneed earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in horticulture at the Ellis Unit in 2006 and was released from TDCJ custody in 2012. He went on to earn an advanced horticulture certification from Texas A&M University and is now a well-respected and popular landscaper at the San Antonio Zoo.
Invited to deliver the commencement address, Sneed said the willingness and ability to change is at the heart of creating success while in prison.
“I’ve come full circle,” he said, pausing to gaze around the chapel before setting his eyes on the rows of graduates seated in front of him. “Enjoy your degree but understand that this is the beginning of a solid foundation. Lasting works are built on a solid foundation. You must continue building on your education.”
The message resonated with Bryan J. Moore, an inmate at the Wynne Unit who was eager to enroll in the Lee College Huntsville Center program after watching so many receive degrees. Moore planned to write a story about the event for “The Echo” prison newspaper as a source of inspiration to others.
“This is really a rebranding ceremony,” he said. “You’re not just an inmate anymore; you get to put on a new mantle. You’re a college graduate.”