By James Cullum
Jose Osorio looked proud as he adjusted his cap and gown in the Law Library of the Alexandria Jail. The 20-year-old and 10 other inmates were about to take a big step in their lives by receiving their high school diplomas. A room full of seated inmates, local law enforcement and cupcakes waited for them in the jail gymnasium.
Osorio wants to go to college and study architecture and project management. “I took the test to better myself. I passed it on the first try,” he said. “We just finished court sentencing April 8 and we’ll see how my appeal goes. I pray to God everything goes well. It’s in his hands.”
Osorio is serving a 45-year sentence for murder and is awaiting transfer to the Department of Corrections for shooting and killing Sylvester Muskelly on Sept. 3, 2009, in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Alexandria’s West End.
Another inmate, Roman Fuentes, 32, is a bouncer at a nightclub in DC. Fuentes has three children and predicts that he will be deported to the Philippines for a firearm offense. “Getting my GED is almost worth the time I spent here,” he said. “I had a felony when I was younger. And then my wife purchased a firearm. I hope that this diploma can help me with my sentence. It’s a non-violent crime. Police came to my house because of child support, not payng enough, because I wasn’t working at the time. My wife let them in and they saw the gun in the closet, and, since they knew I had a felony when I was 17, they arrested me for parole violation and they’re going to deport me. But, you know, if I do get sentenced three to four years, then I’m going to see if I can take any finance classes.”
Sixteen out the last 28 Alexandria inmates who took the General Educational Development diploma exam passed. The curriculum covers social studies, math, reading and writing. The writing portion includes a one-page essay assignment with a generic topic like: What would you teach someone if you had the opportunity? The program is available to inmates three-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week.
Krista Sofonia has been the jail’s adult education coordinator for five years. “The program is voluntary. They find out about it when they go through intake. They have the option to be provided with educational services,” she said. “Last year we were at a 66% pass rate. I think we’re on par with that this year.”
Inmate Melvin Parks has one thing on his mind. “Right now, school. That’s what I’m trying to do for a living. Business management. Plenty of things, not just one. I want to open up a clothing line, a record company… The sky’s the limit. I signed up for my application already at NOVA,” he said.
Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook spoke to the inmates. “Any time anyone tries to improve themselves it’s a good thing,” he said. “If you don’t give people the opportunity to change their lives, we’re doing ourselves a repeated disservice.”
Osorio still has hope for his future. “This [graduation] is something. There is a definite purpose in my life,” he said. “The way things happen in life are not a coincidence. It all happens for a reason. So, now I’ll take this sad time to better myself.”