But for the fences topped with razor wire that surround the facility and all of the graduates are female with the same color blue pants peeking out from under their gowns, the graduation on April 29 at Gadsden Correctional Facility could have been any other small high school in the nation.
In all, 49 students earned their General Education Diplomas while others earned certificates in various occupations including: cosmetology, culinary arts, law clerks, horticulture, personal computer support and commercial driver license.
The graduation speaker was Pastor Dawn Gaskin of Radical Restoration Ministries, a woman who has walked in the shoes on many of the woman she stood before. She talked about her time in prison, the bad choices she made and the hard road to recovery from drug dependency, abusive relationships and the struggle to have her children returned to her custody.
Now out of prison for thee and a half years, Gaskin said it is difficult but she is achieving her goals one at a time. She told the women that when they are released to take the opportunity to turn their lives around. The first step, she said, was the graduation they were participating in, and called it a "good choice."
Class valedictorian Anastasia Jennings told her classmates that, because of mechanical problems, she took the GED three times, 23 years after she gave up on high school and dropped out.
"I had a great sense of pride when I earned my GED. It is never to late to learn." she told her fellow graduates.
Earning the GED, she said, was one of her goals. Jennings said she wanted to achieve something and that she regretted not walking down the aisle with her own graduating class. She comes from a family of college graduates and will enroll in college when she is released in 13 months.
Salutatorian Julie Perry dropped out of high in 10th grade at age 16 and a single mother. Friday, she talked about her now 16-year-old son, who is her motivation. The high school honor student has made Perry proud and she wants him to be equally proud of her.
"I don't want to look at yesterday's mistakes," she said.
Families of the inmates were invited to the spring commencement and sat proudly watching as each woman walked to the front of the room to receive her GED or professional certification. They beamed with pride as their loved ones name was called. Mothers, fathers, husbands, children and aunts looked and a few brushed away tears of joy.
"You, the families and you, the inmates should be proud of the choices you made here to get your education. One hundred percent of the women in robes today are in our custody. I'd like to see that day when this room is not big enough to hold all of them," said Warden Sergio Molina.
"And now, if you will take the tassel and move it from the left to the right," said Deputy Warden Kelly Kollen. That's when the women threw their caps into the air.