Graduation for two

By Patrisha McLean | Jun 08, 2018
Photo by: Courtesy of Patrisha McLean Amy, holding her diploma.

“Every day I said ‘I can’t do this,’” said Sarah, “and every day Mike said ‘Yes you can.’”

Sarah stuck with the high school equivalency program, with teacher Mike Lokuta, and on the last day of May she was one of two inmates at the Knox County Jail to receive her diploma at that institution’s first-ever high school graduation ceremony.

Sarah and Amy, says Mike, “were smart and hard-working enough to cram four years of high school into six months. Half of high school graduates can’t pass the test: I didn’t tell them that when they started.”

Amy, 38, dropped out of Camden High School, and she says her eight years total in jail were all related to substance abuse starting with getting drunk at her mother’s wedding at 11.  “Drugs and alcohol are just a mask but eventually it takes over who you are,” she says. “It takes you to a place you might not come back from. When I OD’d [on heroin and Fentynal in December of last year] I didn’t want to overdose, I was just taking it to stop from being sick.”

She says her high school degree, “is a huge step forward.”

“When I get out this time I have the opportunity and skills to get a better-paying job, not minimum wage. Nobody wants to hire you without your high-school degree unless you work under the table.”

She is enrolling in the Aveda school in Augusta, for cosmetology and business management so she can open her own salon one day, and, “when I have enough drug-free years under my belt,”  becoming a drug and alcohol counselor.

Sarah, 32, had her first of four children at aged 14. Her doctor prescribed drugs for grief when this baby died at six months old, of SIDS, on Mother’s Day.

“Quickly, my life became all about the medication,” Sarah wrote in an essay for Mike’s class.   “I now know it was an escape. Even though I had young children to take care of I could not start my day without the pills. I was either overwhelmed or physically ill. I feared life without the pills. They made me happy and made me feel normal…whatever that is.

“Before I knew it my addiction had spiraled out of control. I was committing crimes and in and out of jail. After that I had to fight DHHS for my children, only to end up losing them in the end because of the poor choices I made.”

Both women credit God for their current straight path.

Sarah dropped out of school in the eighth grade. “I didn’t think I was smart enough,” for the math, science, reading, social studies and science, two-and-a-half hours, four days a week, of the high-school equivalency course offered at the jail.  The final exam was online.  “I hit the end button, and then I clicked the button for the score and my heart was racing right out of my chest. I needed an eight to pass and it popped up 13.”

She plans to pursue a degree in social services with a specialty in drug and alcohol counseling at the University of Maine. Some of the two months remaining of her jail sentence will likely be knocked down, Mike says.  Amy’s release date was the day after the graduation ceremony.

Plans for the women to join a community high school graduation ceremony fell through. “In my graduation,” says Mike, who has taught in Maine jails and prisons for 28 years, "there were marching bands, and what do these girls get? A diploma and have a nice day? They deserve to be honored like anyone else.”

I told Cindy [Cynthia Gardner, head of programs and services], “We have to do something,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

Mike dug up a CD of Pomp and Circumstance from Barnes and Noble and caps and gowns from the Camden Hills Regional High School. The jail kitchen produced a chocolate cake with the writing “Congratulations graduates” and inmates arranged about two dozen folding chairs in the gym.

“It was so great,” Sarah says, “to sit down afterward with my family and have a conversation with them, and hear them say they are proud of me.”

A sign in the jail entrance reads no touching allowed between inmates and visitors but Mike says on that evening, “We sort of turned our heads. There was a lot of hugging.”

Comments (4)
Posted by: Katie Drinkwater | Jun 11, 2018 15:52

Posted by Dee Urquhart.     I am extremely happy for you two ladies! Turning that corner and doing something positive for yourselves is the way to go! Wishing you both the best with your goals. And thanks to Mike and Cindy for making this possible.  A hand up is far better than punishment for addiction.

Posted by: Steven and Susan Clark | Jun 10, 2018 09:13

Love the smiles

Posted by: Steven and Susan Clark | Jun 10, 2018 09:12


Posted by: Walter Guptill | Jun 09, 2018 09:15

Great story, and congratulations ladies!  A new start to life with a new tool in your tool box!  Best of luck!!

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