A small group of prisoners on Thursday celebrated their completion of a unique sign language program by “singing” spiritual songs using only smooth, sweeping hand signals and accentuated lip syncing to music played through speakers during a graduation ceremony at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center.

The tunes brought a lively atmosphere to the ceremony inside Hunt’s visitation center, especially when a group of inmates began belting out the lyrics to “Lean on Me” for three of their fellow program graduates who were forced to sign the song without the benefit of music after it unexpectedly failed to play over speakers.

The ceremony marked the third such graduation since 2009, when the state-sponsored program officially began after an earlier attempt was stunted by the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Eight program participants, all prisoners at Department of Public Safety and Corrections facilities, graduated Thursday after completing the three-year “sign language interpretation” program, which prison officials tout as the only one of its kind in the country.

“This gave us an opportunity that is beneficial to other people,” said Alairis Payne, this year’s salutatorian. “It allowed us to start seeing that there’s life beyond these walls.”

Payne, a 40-year-old Chicago native, said she has been serving time at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, which is near Hunt in St. Gabriel, since 2003 on a manslaughter conviction. Her parole date is in 2020, Payne said.

Upon release, Payne hopes to use the certification she earned inside prison to find a job as a sign language interpreter, perhaps by using a video relay service meant to provide services for people with hearing or speech impairments, she said.

James “Jimmy” LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the program represents one of the ways inmates can give back to the prison by providing a service that would otherwise cost the state. It also provides inmates selected for the program with rehabilitative services crucial to the department’s mission, LeBlanc said.

“Many offenders need an opportunity and a second chance,” he said. “And I think that’s so important to what we do.”

Lonnie Thibodeaux, this year’s valedictorian, told his fellow graduates that the program inspired in him a level of confidence he never had before.

“This environment here showed me that there are people willing to help — that rehabilitation is a true and viable outcome at the DOC,” Thibodeaux said.

Daniel D. Burch and Connie Tullos, from Sign Language Services International Inc., administer the program to the inmates. They host classes once a month at Hunt and occasionally supervise program participants during practice signing sessions at prison church services, Burch said.

Some of the program’s graduates have gone on to accept jobs in the sign language interpretation field upon their release from prison. Among those graduates is Scott Huffman, who attended and signed during some of Thursday’s ceremony, and who now works for Burch in Baton Rouge.

But even for prisoners who won’t ever be released, the program can serve as a daily motivator and method by which they can help out other inmates with hearing or speech impairments.

“The program gives me the opportunity to get away from a lot of distractions inside the prison,” said Jerry Ward, 48, who was in the program’s first graduation class and is serving a life sentence without parole on a second-degree murder conviction out of Orleans Parish.

Ward, whose now-deceased parents were both deaf, said he grew up around sign language and for years helped interpret at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola before the program began. But now he’s been able to learn a more complete and complex version of sign language he didn’t know before.

“I’m learning it not only for myself,” Ward said, “but to help other people.”

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