The valedictorian of this year’s Greystone Adult School graduating class in Folsom State Prison, Chiwei Wang earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business.
At the recent ceremony 109 graduates in black gowns over their regulation “blues” and black caps with gold tassels attended the commencement to receive their diplomas and certificates in front of parents, brothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, babies and supporters.
There were 296 graduates in all, nearly 10 percent of the total population of 3,100 at Folsom State Prison. Besides Wang with his four-year college degree, there were four graduates with associate of arts degrees, three with high school diplomas, 232 with general education development degrees and 56 with vocational certifications in current trades: automotive, masonry, building trades, electronics, office services and related technologies, and welding.
Two men were recognized for their work printing Braille for the visually impaired, and 25 inmates received certificates of commendation for volunteering as literacy and math tutors.
After the graduates and volunteers filed in one by one to their places, everyone stood as the Color Guard, composed of four military veterans, posted the flags.
Protestant Chaplain at Greystone Chapel, Bill Rogowski, gave the invocation.
Wang told his classmates, faculty and prison authorities, and friends and supporters that he is the poster child for the theme of the commencement, which was “Positive Change.” He came to California from Taiwan as a boy.
“I didn’t fit in,” he said, explaining that he was angry, got into trouble and always blamed someone else. “I realized I had to stop blaming other people and take responsibility for my actions.”
That was when he was able to make a positive change in his life. Wang gave credit to his teachers for helping him through the education process.
Warden Rick Hill told the assembled graduates, “You are the cream of the crop for what you have accomplished.” Some of them worked in the Prison Industry Authority during the day and completed their studies at night.
Hill called attention to the dedication of the 37 teachers and faculty in the school. The graduates responded, showing their appreciation with standing applause. Hill said that because of changing conditions in the prison system, none of the teachers and faculty is confident that they will be there next year. Nevertheless, they demonstrated full commitment to helping their students complete their educations.
The day was meant to be inspiring, while acknowledging the reality of the circumstances.
“This is a prison, and like all prisons there will be violence, but good things happen here, too, and today is a happy day,” said keynote speaker Greystone Adult School Principal Jean Bracey.
Through a tear-filled speech, Bracey told of her own life change, her pending retirement. After 30 years, this is her last graduating class. She said she will travel and plans to work with groups helping people around the world.
She spoke from the heart as she said, “No mother ever wants to see her son in prison.” She told the graduates who would be leaving that they have an opportunity to make a life and not return.
Bracey also said is proud of the education programs and training at Folsom. For employers looking for employees to work on the new cars, the electric, biodiesel and computer diagnostics, she said, “Have I got some folks for you.”
The ceremony was meant to be inspiring and the inspirational guest speaker was Steve Gutierrez, apprenticeship consultant for the State Department of Industrial Relations. With humor and straight talk, Gutierrez told of his former career as a glazier, installing glass windows and doors. For those who will be leaving soon, he had some tips. When interviewing for a job, “Don’t be on time, be early. If you’re not the first one in the parking lot, you’re late,” he said.
He challenged the graduates to get a new definition of being a man. “A man gets a job and supports his wife or baby mama and the children he brings into the world.”
Not all of the graduates will be leaving to go out in the world and get a job or start a career. For those who are staying, they were told their accomplishment is something no one can take away. They will be qualified for jobs when they are released and, in the meantime, they may qualify for jobs in the Prison Industry Authority.
In the audience were Reuben and Delores Jessop, who lead the Cameron Park Rotary’s fundraising efforts to support the Greystone Adult School tutoring program.
The Greystone Adult School takes its name from the Greystone Chapel, a granite building that provides multi-denominational religious services. It became famous when an inmate, Glen Sherley, composed a song by that name that was given to Johnny Cash when he put on two concerts in January 1968. Cash sang the song at the concerts and later put it on his album from the concert. Sherley wrote, “It’s a flower of light in a field of darkness, And it’s given me the strength to carry on.”
Folsom State Prison is the second oldest prison in California, after San Quentin. The granite walls enclose 40 acres along the American River with its own community name, Represa, which is Spanish for “dam,” and ZIP code, 95671.
The prison opened July 26, 1880, as a maximum-security prison. Today it is a minimum-medium-security prison with a rated capacity of 1,958.