Hundreds of students at Tidewater Community College celebrated graduation Monday night, including 14 inmates from the Norfolk city jail.
The inmates graduated from a special program that aims to get them a job in the automotive industry once released.
The Priority Inmate Technician Training Program is a partnership between Priority Automotive, TCC and the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office.
After months of work and dedication, these inmates are trading their jumpsuits for a cap and gown.
“My family is very excited. They will be here tonight to cheer me on,” said Terrence Lee. “The struggle is over now. I’m here. I’m here where I’m supposed to be.”
Lee is one of 14 men who completed the Priority Inmate Technician Training Program. It’s designed to help inmates study as auto technicians while still incarcerated.
Since September, the non-violent offenders have been attending class through TCC twice a week and working at a training center located just behind the Priority Infiniti dealership in Chesapeake for three days a week. The goal is for the program participants to learn valuable trade skills they can use once they’re out.
“It helps a lot of us to get back into society, not just as free people but as people with a purpose,” Lee said.
“This is special. These guys have worked so hard to be here,” said Beno Rubin, Director of the Regional Automotive Center. “They have matured and grown as technicians, as students, as people.”
Now that they’re finished with the program, the inmates will go to work at a Priority dealership, giving them workforce experience.
“One of the biggest hurdles we see is getting a job. If we can get them a job and be successful, we don’t see them coming back,” said Chief Deputy Michael O’Toole, with the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office.
The men are also getting a fresh start. Lee said he hopes that’s the message others will see.
“If they check the felony box on the application, don’t just look at them as a felony. Look at them as a possible CEO or maybe the next mechanic or next manager of your business,” Lee said. “Everybody deserves a second chance.”
The inmates are within six months of release but they’ll also be given the chance to continue their studies through TCC if they choose.
The next group of participants will start the program at the beginning of the next semester.