Ceremony Honors Inmate Grads at County Correctional Facility
‘I want to make sure it’s completely known. You can obtain a college diploma when you leave here.’ — Jonathan Neal, Germantown resident, Montgomery College student and former inmate to newly minted graduates at Montgomery County Correctional Facility
Keynote speaker Jonathan Neal took a couple of lengthy sighs as he entered the jailhouse gym to set up for the graduation. Nearly a decade ago he was in a similar setting, behind bars for dealing drugs and working toward his GED.
But this time Neal seemed to have peace of mind.
“I’m glad,” said Neal, 25, of Germantown. “I’m glad I can help.”
During a ceremony Friday, Neal addressed six newly minted graduates, men who earned degrees as inmates. The ceremony was held at Montgomery County Correctional Facility near Clarksburg.
Presently, Neal is studying communications at Montgomery College. He has a 4.0 GPA and is a Montgomery College Foundation scholarship winner, according to David Sears, the college’s vice-president of advancement.
Neal said he was working toward transferring to University of Maryland, where he wants to pursue an undergraduate degree in communications and play basketball.
“I want to make it sure it’s completely known,” Neal said. “You can obtain a college diploma when you leave here.”
Approximately 30 inmates received degrees this year, according to Barbara James, the correctional facility’s chief education administrator.
Linda Rainbolt, a Montgomery County Public Schools resource teacher, said one of the graduates who walked Friday received a high school diploma.
The remaining graduates earned GEDs. Among them was James Biddinger, a Germantown resident recently sentenced for manslaughter. He said being behind bars has forced him to re-arrange his priorities. “Family, freedom, education,” Biddinger said.
During the ceremony, Biddinger was recognized with the Terry Reister Award for Academic Excellence, a non-monetary honor for having scored the highest of his classmates on the GED test.
Montgomery College awarded $1,500 scholarships to three inmates — Brandon Creary, Johann Kassi and Norisett Taylor — which they can use at the school upon their release, Sears said.
“I look forward to the day when you cross our stage for a degree or a certificate,” Sears said during the ceremony.
Clarice Somersall, Montgomery College’s special assistant to the senior vice presidents for Academic and Student Services, said there were plans to expand the college’s offerings to inmates.
Arthur Wallenstien, director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, said such educational opportunities were key to inmates finding success outside the jailhouse walls.
“Without education nothing will work,” Wallenstien said. “With education, we stand to attack some of the key causes of crime. It’s not perfect but it puts them on the playing field.”