Durham jail program creates high school graduates and hope

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- From behind bars at the Durham County Detention Center, Mychal Mercer is plotting a new strategy for his life. Mercer can now call himself a high school graduate.

He is one of five inmates who graduated Wednesday from a new high school equivalency program, a partnership between the Durham County Sheriff's Office and the Durham Literacy Center.

"Before coming here, I didn't have my head on straight," said Mercer. "I have kids, so when I came here and had this opportunity to better myself and better my life, I wanted to be different and change myself."

The graduation ceremony looked like any other, complete with caps, gowns, diplomas and plenty of proud family members.

"To see their achievement, to see that sense of pride, that's what it's all about," said Lizzie Ellis-Furlong, Executive Director of the Durham Literacy Center. "It might just seem like a piece a paper, a credential you have to have to move forward, but really, it shows them they can do this."

The sheriff's office believes the program creates opportunities for inmates to contribute positively to the community after their release and gives graduates the credentials they need to enroll in college programs and apply for jobs through a partnership with the Local Re-Entry Council.

"My challenge to them is very simple, 'next steps'," said Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. "I told them to try to learn something new every day, then they will continue to grow once they're back in this community."

Staff from the Durham Literacy Center teach the high school equivalency classes twice. New sessions begin every two months.

Mercer's wife and son joined him for the ceremony. He is hoping to attend barber school after his release and open a shop of his own.

"I just want to prove that no matter where you come from or what your background is, you can change yourself, and make yourself better than what you were," said Mercer.
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