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Female felons don caps and gowns at Las Vegas prison ceremony

It looked pretty much the same as any other high school graduation — a lectern decorated with a homemade paper banner congratulated the graduating class in a gymnasium, a shoddy projector occasionally cut out until someone woke it up, and processional music played over a rented public address system as graduates filed in.

And then the intercom interrupted everything. “All clear,” an official sounding voice said – a startling reminder that this isn’t just any graduation. This is prison.

The Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center hosted its annual graduation ceremony on Wednesday for those in its all-female felon population receiving high school diplomas or high school equivalency certificates, completing vocational training, or even graduating from college. The event is held in tandem with the Clark County School District.

And for 35-year-old Sesha Awa, this day felt like it would never come.

“It was hard, but I was determined to get it done,” she said, dressed in a burgundy cap and gown, her blue jeans and white sneakers from her inmate uniform showing under the gown’s hem.

She was among about 50 inmates being recognized for their academic efforts while behind bars.

After a sentence for a sex crime, and a separate stint for grand larceny, Awa is on the tail end of her third sentence – this time for vehicle theft. After three years, she is due to be released June 2.

Awa, who acknowledges her history of slipping down the slope of prison altercations and being placed in segregation, said this time is going to be different, thanks to the education she received while incarcerated.

“I was just tired of not having a life and having this door being a revolving one,” she said with a piece of celebratory cake in her hand.

So with the support of her church and the people who raised her, she enrolled in classes a year and a half ago.

Awa’s is the success story that prison officials like to see, especially as the Nevada Department of Corrections is making a shift toward rehabilitation.

Wednesday’s graduates also included Alica Wegner, 51, who was imprisoned for the March 1997 killing of a 14-month-old girl. Wegner received a bachelor’s degree in business management.

Warden Jo Gentry said the graduating class made her feel almost “like a proud mother.”

And for Awa specifically, Gentry said the road to this point was long and winding. Watching Awa graduate and grow as an individual makes her proud, the warden said. It’s also inspired confidence that Awa will be successful once she crosses to the other side of the barbed wire fence next week.

Inmates were allowed to invite two visitors to the ceremony, and those without family joining them were able to invite one inmate from within the facility.

Awa brought along 33-year-old inmate Melissa Heath to inspire Heath to change her ways. Heath said she avoided signing up for classes, but Awa went ahead and filled out the paperwork for her.

“She’s not who she used to be,” Heath said of Awa. “It’s amazing to watch the growth.”

After completing the necessary amount of credits required by the state of Nevada and passing the required proficiency exams, Awa now holds the same high school diploma as every other student who has graduated outside prison walls.

Awa, who said she has a job at a recovery center waiting for her after her release, plans to sign up for classes and attend college next semester.

Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Find @BlakeApgarLV on Twitter.

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