WARREN — The ceremony resembled most graduations, with marching students, university administration in colorful regalia and commencement speeches lauding the graduates for their accomplishments.
But unlike other graduations, the 13 men accepting their diplomas didn’t leave with their friends and family. Instead, the men returned to their cells and their friends and family left through sets of doors that slid shut behind them.
It was the third University of Maine at Augusta graduation held at Maine State Prison as part of a college education program funded by philanthropist Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Buffett, who attended the ceremony in Warren on Monday, said her organization, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, has spent nearly $1 million in the last seven years paying for inmates to take college classes at the prison.
This year, 14 inmates graduated with degrees from UMA — eight with associate degrees in liberal studies and six bachelor of arts in liberal studies — and 13 attended the ceremony.
Of the 14 graduates, 13 graduated with honors.
Deborah Meehan of the University College at Rockland, which administers the program, said faculty members say the inmates are some of their best students.
Buffett said she started the program, which is also run in eight other states, to have a positive impact people’s lives. But the success of keeping the graduates from returning to prison surprised her.
None of the inmates that have graduated from any of the programs have gone back to prison, according to Buffett. That includes Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, which has offered a college education program to its inmates for more than a decade.
Nationally, the percentage of inmates who later return to prison is around 43 percent, according to a 2011 study from the Pew Center on the States.
The recidivism rate in Maine isn’t tracked, but the head of the Warren prison said educational programming has been proved to reduce the risk of inmates reoffending.
Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard said people are more likely to change their lives and behavior if programming like this is available and not if the focus of the prison is punishment of criminals.
“This approach might seem a little counterintuitive, but it’s really the approach that works,” Bouffard said after the ceremony.
The student commencement speaker, Brandon Brown, thanked everyone involved at the program and said their belief in the students helped the students believe in themselves.
“I was positive that I had no chance of redemption at all,” Brown said. “All I saw was fences and barb wire and all I saw beyond was just a blur.”
Brown, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2010 for shooting a man outside a nightclub in Portland, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, said he now wants to teach and help inspire other students.
Another of the graduates, Steven Clark, 36, said he works with other inmates at the prison in the substance abuse counseling program. He said his education has given them the ability and emotional intelligence to support others struggling with issues he faced himself. Clark was sentenced to 43 years in prison in 2007 for fatally shooting a friend after a night of heavy drinking and drug use.
“It’s not only made society a better place but made the prison a better place,” he said of the program.
Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was at the ceremony and hugged Clark after he accepted his diploma. She said he, as well as others in the program, has volunteered for the NAACP at the prison.
Ross, echoing a sentiment among many at the ceremony, said the program shows that it’s possible for people to change and not be defined by past mistakes.
“This has a real tangible impact,” she said. “It’s palpable.”
Paul Koenig — 207-621-5663