Some high school graduates earn diplomas behind razor wire

Seniors all across the state are graduating high school this month, some of them reaching the milestone behind razor wire.

MeShanna Douglas, 17, and Breunna Stewart, 18, are a couple of them.

MeShanna burned down a house near Columbus two years ago that her friends used to hang out in.

She’s been locked up since at Macon’s Youth Development Campus.

When Stewart pulled a knife during a fight in Atlanta in 2007 she too was sentenced to the Macon facility for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Tuesday, after getting a handshake from the state commissioner of juvenile justice and their high school diplomas during a commencement exercise, these two finally see light at the end of the tunnel.

“They went through the same training program just like any other student, the only difference is the razor wire,” said State Commissioner of Juvenile Justice Albert Murray, who attended the ceremony in which Douglas and Stewart were the only pair to earn high school diplomas.

Two females were recognized for earning a GED.

About 20 incarcerated juveniles in Georgia have earned a high school diploma during four different Department of Juvenile Justice commencement exercises in Macon, Augusta, Columbus and Atlanta during the past four weeks, Murray said.

“I think it’s noteworthy,” Murray said. “While that may be a small number to the public, it’s a major victory to the Department of Juvenile Justice. These are the failures, the dropouts who may have done so poorly they never would’ve gotten out of high school.

“While we regret they committed a crime, they earned something (in here) — their diploma.”

The state operates 22 co-ed Regional Youth Detention Centers for holding youth who commit crimes but are yet to be sentenced.

In 2008, there were about 15,700 youth admitted to those centers.

Georgia operates seven Youth Development Campuses, which are long-term facilities for incarcerated youth.

Last year, they held about 3,000 youths.

While six of the YDC’s are all-boys facilities, a wooded area in east Macon is home to the state’s only long-term girls facility. It houses about 150 girls ranging in age from 13 to 20, who come from all over the state.

Some are there for six months, others for up to five years for crimes ranging from armed robbery, assault and sex offenses to manslaughter. While about one in three will return to youth detention centers after their original release, Murray said, some will go on to pass their Georgia High School Graduation Tests and earn enough credits to graduate high school. A few may even be accepted into college, he said.

Their education means self-sustainability, more public safety and more contention for employment, he said.

“A lot (more) of us could have been up here on stage. (Some) didn’t care or weren’t motivated,” Douglas said while celebrating at a table with her family after getting her diploma.

She could be released as early as next week and plans to return to her hometown of Buena Vista, attend technical college and earn a degree in Early Childhood Education.

“Looking back (at the crime) it was real stupid,” she said. “It feels good to graduate. I’m proud of myself.”

Stewart has a court hearing next Friday about an early release. She also dreams of putting her past behind her and going on to college to perhaps study criminal justice or broadcasting, maybe even play basketball. “Because of the situation I’m in it’s not as easy to pursue my career,” Stewart said. “I’d just ask (colleges) to have an open mind for us. There are girls incarcerated that have a plan or a mind-set to go to college.”

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.