Six South Louisiana Community College students marched in front of proud family and friends for graduation Wednesday, but instead of walking across a stage at the Cajundome, they were at the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office Transitional Housing Facility.

The six men — Max Amy, Meyagi Baker, Clayton Batiste, Blake Hebert, Nicholas Leblanc and Klifford Moss — were part of the second class of inmates graduating from the SLCC welding program as part of a reentry partnership between the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office and SLCC.

The program began as a pilot in August 2017 and is growing. In 2018, the first two inmates graduated from the welding program.

SLCC Chancellor Natalie Harder said it’s critical that diverse educational opportunities are available to incarcerated people and other individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Without targeted programs and the willingness of educational institutions to work with them, they won’t attain the needed skills to better themselves and society, she said.

Graduating from the joint SLCC-LPSO program means the offenders will exit incarceration with the opportunity to earn a minimum of $40,000 to $50,000 annually, a wage that can open doors for the graduates and their families. That can be the difference between progress and reoffending, she said.

“In a state that has had overincarceration for generations, these programs need to figure out how to be more supportive. There are more of these young men and women in our correctional facilities than we can serve right now,” Harder said. “If we want to change the trajectory of not just their lives, but the progress of our state, we’ve got to do more.”

Andre Perez, executive director of academic initiatives for SLCC, said the six students took courses toward earning their National Center for Construction Education Research (NCCER) Core, Welding Level 1 and Welding Level 2 certifications.

The courses ran for three semesters, from fall 2018 through summer 2019, and were as rigorous as the classes students take on any of SLCC’s campuses, he said.

The classes were conducted by welding instructor Dwayne Martin at the LPSO Transitional Housing Facility on West Willow Street. SLCC has an 18-wheeler outfitted with eight welding bays the offenders used as a mobile classroom for training, Perez said.

“We consider this just another campus of SLCC,” he said.

Perez said they work with LPSO to target offenders with at least one year of incarceration left to ensure they have time to complete the program and can be matched with employment while transitioning out of incarceration.

The executive director said he’s seen personally how reentry training and education can change a person’s fortunes after release. His cousin was incarcerated for 15 years and while imprisoned trained to become an automotive technician. He’s been out for 10 years now, and is preparing to open his own automotive shop, Perez said.

LPSO community corrections director Donovan LaGrange said the inmates are state-sentenced Department of Corrections inmates that come from around the state to participate in LPSO’s reentry and transitional training programs. Lafayette is a regional reentry hub with programs not offered in most parishes, he said.

Aside from educational programs, the LPSO program also ensures offenders have Social Security cards and licenses, can pay off fines they incurred because of their incarceration, and have a case worker and transitional coordinator to assist their reentry into society.

The work benefits the inmate and helps ensure community safety by reducing recidivism rates, he said.

“You can’t just put somebody behind bars and not invest in their transition. We can’t just put you in jail and when your time’s up put you back on the street. You’re going to recidivate because you have no tools and you’re returning to the same environment,” he said. “Education is paramount.”

Meyagi Baker, 23, said he doesn’t plan to return to his life preincarceration. He’s one of two graduates who have already been hired because of the welding program. He’s worked for Industrial Fabrications for the past month and said his employer and co-workers treat him like any other worker.

“You get older and learn as you grow,” he said. “I plan to be free for the rest of my life, and not have to go through everything that I went through before this.”

His two brothers, mother and cousin drove from New Orleans for his graduation Wednesday. His cousin Sherlita Rodriguez, 35, is preparing to graduate from Delgado Community College with a science degree in December and said she’s proud to see her cousin embracing his education and setting out on a stable career path.

“It was well worth the drive,” she said.

Clayton Batiste, 39, of Lafayette, spoke on behalf of his class at the graduation ceremony. He was cheered on by his daughter, son, mother and sister, who congratulated him afterward with hugs, beaming smiles and a balloon bouquet declaring, “You’re #1!”

Batiste said he’s been incarcerated for nine years and three months for an aggravated arson charge. He said he enjoyed the welding program because, “It challenged me to challenge myself.” Whenever he felt daunted, he said he prayed for the strength to keep going.

Batiste said he has about two years left on his sentence, and he’s hoping he can participate in the work release program now that he has his certification. His children are starting high school and he said he wants to show them that even with mistakes, it’s possible to be a positive role model.

“If I can do it, they can do it. They just started high school so it should encourage them that if I can graduate, you can graduate as well,” Batiste said. “You can continue on the legacy and keep moving forward to accomplish good things in life.”

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Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com