DEER LODGE — It’s the time of year for graduation commencement ceremonies and Helena College’s 2023 class are like any other proud graduates except for one thing: They are inmates at the Montana State Prison.
“The year’s gone by real quick and it’s given me hope and an actual light at the end of the tunnel as they say, you know, before I had nothing and now I have something,” said inmate Austin Johnson of Butte.
In a partnership with the Montana Department of Corrections and Helena College, the prison graduated nine inmates from its eight-month-long automotive technology course. The course is designed to give inmates a skill so they can go to work once they’re released from prison.
“This is why we do this job, we want less cost to taxpayers without more incarcerated students going out and coming back to our prisons,” said Department of Corrections Education Director Marisa Britton-Bostwick.
Kalem Branson is expected to be released next March and wanted to be prepared, so he signed up for this class.
“I think I just want to better my life, yeah, and not be another statistic in coming back to prison, you know,” said Branson.
Governor Greg Gianforte was there to personally congratulate the students.
“Today is just the beginning, this is a commencement, a beginning, and know that the whole state of Montana is routing for each one of you. We believe in you. Use your skills for a good purpose and you’ll find satisfaction in work and in life,” the governor said.
The program also brings hope.
“I truly never thought I’d actually graduate from a college course after making the mistakes in my life. Before being selected for this course I thought I was locked with the key being thrown away, and thought I would go nowhere. This program has given me a new opportunity in life, a chance to grow and become somebody,” said Johnson.
The program is funded through the federal Second Chance Pell Grant program that was started in Montana last fall.