Former gang leader keynotes grad ceremony for Mississippi women inmates
Published 8:27 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2023
Eight women from the Mississippi Department of Correction’s Flowood Restitution Center were recognized with a special graduation ceremony for receiving their high school credential through Hinds Community College’s Adult Education program.
The women, the first inmates to receive their High School Equivalency certificate through the Hinds program, were honored with a June 20 graduation ceremony, complete with caps and gowns, on the Rankin Campus in Pearl.
“You will always be the first,” said Kristi Johnson, Hinds Director of Adult Education. “Even though I am not in the classroom every day, I do know how hard you all work. I hear how dedicated you are. I see your test scores – which are phenomenal. Your test scores are always the highest of any of the campuses we have – anywhere.
“So, if no one has ever told you before,” Johnson emphasized, “I am telling you now: You are extremely intelligent. And extremely capable.”
The keynote speaker was former gang leader Benny Ivey who said he served 11 years in prison, was raised by drug dealers and addicts and never knew what “normal” was. He was once a leader in the Simon City Royals, was a meth banger, but when he was finally offered drug treatment in the Rankin County jail system, he took the opportunity and decided to turn his life around.
In his recovery he learned that he needed to have a dream. He needed to have a goal, a vision for what he intended for his life after prison and gang life. He told the graduates that they must also have a vision for their life.
“You have to go home with a plan,” Ivey told the women. “Make it as detailed as possible. Be sincere, let people know you are serious, and people will take you seriously.”
The eight women expressed gratitude at having the opportunity offered to them while they’re serving their time.
“You should never give up and never lose your trust in God,” said honoree Stephanie Cleveland, 45, during a reception following the ceremony. “Set your goals and you can accomplish anything.”
Another HSE graduate Tina Ruiz said her goal is similar to that of Ivey’s – to work with young people. She said earning her high school equivalency certificate “has opened my eyes to a lot of things. Being 48-years-old, and just now getting it, I see where I can go out into the world and do anything with it. Mr. Ivey hit home with me because that is what I want to do when I get out — work with at risk youth. Because I know what I could have used as a teenager that I didn’t get.”
Hinds Adult Education Corrections Navigator/Instructor Jennifer Szarek said her role teaching female inmates was an unexpected blessing.
“We have been through a lot together this year. I am so proud of this group of ladies,” Szarek said. “This is a steppingstone to greater things. When applying at Hinds, it wasn’t initially to work in corrections, but I wouldn’t trade this year for anything in the world.”
With the help of community partners, federal and state dollars and volunteers, these services are offered at no cost to nearly 1,000 adult learners at six locations in the college’s service area.