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Oneida County Jail seeks inmate success through exposure

Payne Horning
An inmate at the Oneida County Jail accepts his diploma during a graduation ceremony for behavioral improvement and high school equivalency classes.

On an overcast afternoon, a graduation ceremony is underway inside the Oneida County Jail, but instead of caps and gowns, the graduates are wearing bright orange jump suits. 

As the inmates glide to the front of the room, they are greeted with diplomas, smiles and piercing stares from several guards who watch their every move. These behavioral improvement courses and high school equivalency education programs at the jail are nothing new. Opening the graduation ceremonies to the media is. 

"They deserve some recognition because these programs – they don’t have to do what they’re doing," said Sheriff Robert Maciol. "They’re doing it to better themselves and make a more positive impact on their own lives."

Maciol said the Oneida County Jail is ahead of the game by publicly recognizing the students, giving them a chance to be associated with something noteworthy for a change. Inmate and graduate Michael Ellis appreciates that.

"I have a wife and son who are patiently waiting for me and they’re proud for me for what I’ve done," Ellis said. "It’s an exciting feeling, you know, to actually accomplish something in a positive sense."

Ellis said he has been incarcerated several times before and never took any of the courses until his current stint. Now, he said he has some of the tools necessary to succeed on the outside after completing the "Ready, Set, Work" program. 

Oriskany Alternative High School teacher Denise Mazza is in her third year teaching at the jail. She said it's a rewarding process to help these students, who overcome great obstacles. 

"I see growth and commitment and motivation of our students, which hopefully will in turn help better their life and help them seek jobs and be committed to the jobs," Mazza said. 

Mazza said she has seen some of her former students successfully transition into the workplace. Sheriff Maciol said it's too early to prove any benefits to this approach writ-large. However, he does think they're on to something that may make a difference.  

"We're ahead of the game," he said.