A group of eight women participated in a special ceremony late last week inside the Tennessee Prison For Women in Nashville. It was their graduation — after most of them spent more than a decade working towards their bachelor’s degrees from Lipscomb University.
In many ways, this feels like any other Lipscomb graduation. Bright purple curtains with the university’s logo adorn a stage in a gym. Graduates in black caps and gowns chat excitedly, peering into the crowd in search of familiar faces.
But it’s not quite the same — their family and friends wait in line to go through a security check. They stand barefoot, shoes in hand, while they wait for a guard to inspect the soles and insides for contraband. Every item is passed through a scanner before they walk through a metal detector.
They can’t bring in balloons or flowers, or even a camera to record their loved one's special moment. But for the graduates it won’t matter. They aren't recognized like this often, and it all started with a book club that eventually got the attention of a Lipscomb professor.
"The next thing you know we were offered degrees and here we are," says Donna.*
"The first degree I earned in 2013 was an Associates' degree and today I’m going to be a Lipscomb graduate — with a bachelor's degree."
Her eyes get misty when she talks about it. Because it hasn't quite been that simple. Donna is 60-years-old and now walks with a cane due to health issues. She is serving a life sentence for murder and has spent two decades behind bars already. She’ll likely spend the rest of her life here. WPLN first met with her in 2011 as she made progress towards her first degree. Then, again when she graduated two years later.
* We are not using Donna's last name or photo because Victims' Services didn’t give permission. Tennessee Department of Correction policy requires contacting a victim's family to approve any news highlighting the inmate. This process has to be done every time a story is written. We used her full name and photos in both prior articles because they were approved at the time. Approval was not granted this time.
"You have to remember I am a criminal," says Donna. "To a lot of people in society that’s all they’ll remember, that I’m a criminal."
But not in the classroom. There, many of her classmates look up to her. She's not just book smart, she's older, more experienced, rife with institutional knowledge. She can guide the newcomers through the justice system, through the first difficult years behind bars when Donna says she laid awake at night and questioned every decision that led her here.
The "outside students," who make the trek from the Lipscomb campus every semester to share a classroom, also listen. They debate, share notes and commiserate when certain professors give too much homework.
But there is a marked difference between the "insiders" and "outsiders" in the classroom — besides the sweats and skinny jeans that stand out against the inmate's TDOC-issued baggy denim pants and blue shirts. Those students will get to graduate and find a job in their field.
Many of the women in the program are serving long or life sentences. They might never have a chance to use their degrees, but it’s given them something to work towards as they serve time. It’s also introduced them to professors who help and care about their success.
"Sometimes because we are invisible in prison," says Donna. "We are behind these gates and these walls. Most people don’t know we are here — you are invisible to the world. To have someone just to listen is an important thing."
Originally there was no plan for a bachelor's program in prison, but Richard Goode, a Lipscomb history professor and the LIFE Program’s founder, believed the women when they said they could go further.
Now Lipscomb says it's one of only a handful in the United States.
"We could have never imagined that it could reach this level," says Goode. "We’ve seen the program grow over the years — a lot more students, courses, degree offerings — but really the growth is measured in the students themselves and their achievements."
What they've accomplished is remarkable. Together, the women have a 3.825 GPA. And that's with only three hours of instruction once a week — which is why a 4-year degree took more than ten. They’re also not allowed to go online and have limited access to books.
Donna says they're always behind, but time is the one thing she has.
"It doesn’t matter that the state says that I’ll be here until I die," she says. "There are people who won’t, and if nobody is here to show them the right way in which to go, they’ll keep coming back here. I want to help that stop."
Next she wants to get her master's degree, if that becomes available. She'd like to become a counselor.
But she has to start by walking across the stage.
When her name is called, Donna leaves her cane behind as the crowd of professors, inmates and guests whoop and cheer.
She clutches her diploma against her chest and says, "I'm the least likely to be here. I did commit murder. I do deserve the sentence that was given of life. But because of Dr. Goode who saw life differently, because he had a vision and a dream ... He came and said 'Donna, you're more than this place.' And I thank you for that."
Donna will never be able to put her past behind her, and the family she hurt won’t either. But, she says, at least she can try and keep others from making the same mistakes.