PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As the graduation ceremony ended, the inmates posed with instructor Adriana I. Dawson, raising their tattooed, muscular arms and cupping their hands into the shape of a heart.
On Dec. 14, a total of 14 male inmates came to Roger Williams University’s Providence campus to graduate from a job-readiness program called “Pivot the Hustle,” which RWU and the Rhode Island Department of Corrections launched one year ago to help inmates pivot to productive careers.
The following night, 12 female inmates graduated from the program, which was developed and is managed by RWU’s School of Continuing Studies. The program uses no public funds, and by cutting down on recidivism, it can save taxpayer money in future years.
Provost Andrew Workman delivered the closing remarks at the Dec. 14 ceremony. He noted that RWU recently adopted a new goal: “To build the university the world needs now.” And, he said, “Listening today, I was thinking: This is the best example we have so far of having done that.”
Dawson, assistant dean of RWU’s School of Continuing Studies and one of the program’s instructors, explained that the 16-week program begins by prompting inmates to analyze where they are in life, what changes they need to make and where they want to be in the future. It prepares them to talk about their personal stories and to speak to an employer. It teaches them how to look for jobs and to match their skills with job opportunities. And it provides a model for giving ex-offenders the ability to contribute to the state’s economy, she said.
Inmate Charles Bersch spoke during the ceremony, saying he was struck by something Dawson had told the class: “I don’t care about your past — I care about your future.”
“How many people hear that in a day?” Bersch asked his fellow inmates. “Somebody cares about what you are going to do for yourself in the future — instead of worrying about, ‘Oh wow, you did this, you did that.’ ”
Bersch said he wants to take advantage of the opportunities the RWU has provided him in the program. “We are regular people who made bad decisions and want to move forward,” he said. “I want to change my life, and I hope, with this class, I can do it. I hope the future people who come in get the same opportunities I’ve gotten from it — the information. I don’t know what else to say but ‘Thank you.’ ”
Inmate Diego Alex Osorio recalled something one of the program volunteers had said: “Our life is just on pause right now.”
“When they catch a charge and they are incarcerated, a lot of people think that their life is over,” Osorio said. “I spoke to my mom and she’s always telling me, ‘Now that you have a charge, what are you going to do?’ But she needs to know my life is on pause, too. And if you really want it, you will go out and get it, no matter how hard it is. One of the volunteers told us he was living the same lifestyle we were, and he came out it — he was successful.”
Osorio said he wants to return to school. “It’s good to know there is somebody is out there to help you,” he said. “We don’t want to continue the lifestyle. We want to move on. We want to be successful. A lot of us have kids. And we want to be there with our kids for holidays, for their birthdays, for everything. This program actually really helped us a lot.”
Department of Corrections Director A.T. Wall spoke to the graduates, saying he often encounters inmates who are about to be released. He’ll ask them, “What do you need when you leave here?” And, he said, “Almost to a man they say, ‘I need a job.’ ”
“Pivot the Hustle” helps inmates learn how to write resumes, interview for jobs and handle conflict in the workplace, Wall said. And he said he looks forward to continued collaboration with RWU. “Based on this class’s experience, you have opened the door for many who will come after you,” he said.
Jamie Scurry, dean of the School of Continuing Studies, told the class, “Whether you realize it or not, you were really pioneers. There is no program like this in the state of Rhode Island. You were the first men who are incarcerated to be at a university taking classes to better your future. And because you did it and you did it so well, it means you kept the door open for people who are coming after you.”
Scurry said she hopes to continue partnering with the Department of Corrections and in the future to offer “workforce development certificates and really work with employers to make sure that once you have that certificate, you have a job.”
Workman emphasized that RWU wants to remain connected to the inmates after they leave prison, helping them to reach their potential and contribute to society.
“We want you to come and talk to us,” he said. “But we want to see you here as students, too, as you are released, because we are committed to your future. Because the university the world needs now isn’t just a leafy, ivory tower off on a campus somewhere. It’s right here, right in the middle of Providence, right in this building -- and we welcome you into our community.”