Getting locked up on drug charges might have been a blessing in disguise for 17-year-old Spencer Giddens.
On Thursday, he and four other teens incarcerated at the Augusta Youth Development Campus were honored for earning General Educational Development (GED) certificates in a ceremony with all the grace and aplomb of a high school graduation. Spencer said he'd never have turned his tassel had he stayed in his hometown of McRae, in south Georgia.
"I was in school, but I wasn't doing no work, so probably not," he said.
Counting Thursday's honorees, 27 boys have earned GEDs and eight have received diplomas since the YDC reopened as a state-operated facility, which was three years ago this month. Like other youth prisons in Georgia, it has an on-site high school accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Education is one of many missions the Department of Juvenile Justice has stressed since a searing 1998 U.S. Justice Department report led the agency into an ongoing memorandum of agreement to fix "egregious" problems.
"Of all the things we do, I'd like to say that education may be the most important," Juvenile Justice Commissioner Albert Murray said, delivering the commencement address in the campus gymnasium.
The commissioner also reflected on the events of 2004, when, new to the job, he opted to close the facility amid a dispute with a private contractor and serious questions about the ability of the Florida-based corrections firm scheduled to take over. On Valentine's Day, Augusta-based Unique Solutions was ousted and 63 boys were shipped to other facilities.
"It was not an easy decision to make," Mr. Murray said Thursday.
As it had been before, the reconstituted Augusta YDC became the state's primary facility for housing and treating Georgia's mentally ill, male juvenile offenders. The commissioner handpicked John Brady, a psychiatric nurse, to be the new director. Mr. Brady had run a maximum security youth prison for Mr. Murray when he was the Juvenile Justice commissioner in Kansas.
Mr. Murray said he believes he made the right decision. The YDC currently houses 112 boys, 64 of them mental health cases. The commissioner also cut the ribbon Thursday on the campus' new Vocational Building, an old dormitory renovated at a price of $1.3 million, which will put computer, construction, landscaping, horticulture and GED classes all under one roof.
Also receiving GED certificates were Kwame Brunson, 18, of Columbus; Brandon Francis, 17, of Macon; Cody Williams, 16, of Waycross; and Tyrome Woods, 18, of Decatur. All plan to attend technical colleges later.
"Let this be the beginning, rather than the end, of your education adventure," Mr. Murray told them.
For Spencer, Thursday marked a new beginning in more ways than one. It was also his release day after seven months at the YDC and nine months of incarceration. His mother, Sandra Giddens, was there to see him cross the stage, then take him home afterward.
He wore a gold sash with his cap and gown because he had the highest average score on the GED test.
He plans to attend Heart of Georgia Technical College in Dublin, Ga., to study radiology, and said he'll stay out of trouble by buckling down on schoolwork and working a construction job that one of the YDC teachers arranged for him.
"His attitude is a lot better toward me," his mother said. "He needed to be here, because he was out of control."
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