An unprecedented event at D.C. jail: a high school graduation

Petula Dvorak
Columnist June 13, 2011

It was the quintessential June scene: balloons, banners, “Pomp and Circumstance,” grandma in a wheelchair, the graduate scanning the crowd to wave to his dad.

The only thing missing? Cameras. You can’t bring cameras into the D.C. jail.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

So the Department of Corrections had its own photographer there to record the event. That was just one of the logistical snarls the jail had to untangle to stage this unprecedented event: a high school graduation behind bars.

The jail was put in this unusual position by a very determined 17-year-old named David Williams, the first kid to earn a D.C. public school diploma while locked up.

We’re not talking GED or jailhouse trade classes.

No, David Williams did the same algebra and chemistry and biology as the kids over at Eastern or Banneker or Wilson did. He wrote essays in his bunk while the guys around him yelled and fronted and posed and beefed.

“There were a lot more distractions here than on the outside,” he told me after switching his tassel and posing for the corrections photographer with his dad, who was anxious to hug him after the body scanner, the pat-down, the security escort and all the waiting.

I asked his dad whether it was okay that I put his son’s name in the paper.

“He was in the paper when he got in here, so it’d be great to get him in there now,” said Willie Williams, 47, who owns a carpet cleaning business and tried so hard to keep his son from running with the wrong crowd that he switched him to a charter school a couple years ago.

“He was doing so good in school, but he was acting up outside. I’ve never been in jail, so it broke my heart when this happened,” Williams told me. His son was arrested and convicted for armed robbery when he was 16.

“He was so afraid,” Williams said. “The schoolwork saved him.”

David gets out in July. He’s applying to colleges but probably will start out at the University of the District of Columbia. He wants to major in history and maybe become an archaeologist, he told me. His diploma will say Friendship Collegiate Academy, where he was an 11th-grader when he was arrested.

The Correctional Treatment Facility now has a full-blown school inside its walls where kids such as David — most of the juveniles are 16 or 17 and were charged as adults for crimes that usually involved a weapon — take a full load of high school classes. They have math, history, science and English teachers.

Up until now, Principal Soncyree Lee had to deal with some unusual challenges, including setting up anger management classes, getting enough pens that can be used inside the jail (felt tip only) and keeping the curriculum varied enough to match all the grade levels. But not something like a graduation.

What would the school colors be? (They chose blue and gold.)

What would the theme be? (To Catch a Rising Star.)

How would they make that cement-block room happy? (Stripes of royal blue painter’s tape!)

David was the lone graduate. But along with his valedictorian speech, the ceremony included 30 other inmates getting awards in their classes.

Guys with tattoos jumped up and smiled as they were cheered for receiving certificates for citizenship and history and chemistry.

It was one of the few times in these past few years that Kenya Worthy has had a positive interaction with her 17-year-old son. “It’s been nothing but conflict and tough love,” said Worthy, 40, who stood up and cheered “I love you!” when her son received a biology award.

Last time she saw him, he was in court being sentenced for armed robbery.

It took but a few seconds after the last award was given for the youths in orange jumpsuits on the right side of the room and the parents, girlfriends, grandmothers and a few small children on the left side of the room, to spill into each other’s arms.

Moms hugged their boys and smeared lipstick on their cheeks. A girlfriend with huge false eyelashes necked with a boy in a corner.

Amid all the reunions, in the middle of the room in his dark suit, David’s father looked him right in the eyes. “Now don’t you mess this up,” he told him.

Then, suddenly, the celebratory vibe in the room dampened as corrections officers gathered, and those in orange had to be separated from those in denim, dresses and suits.

“I can’t believe it. Lockdown. Of all days,” one young man said.

“I’m sorry, folks, if you could please sit down,” one of the corrections officials said over a microphone. “We have to remember where we are.”

And then it was over. They lined back up, inmates again, the officers doing a head count as they marched them back out of the room. The metal doors clanked behind them.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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