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Nov 05, 2013 09:23 AM EST

Maine State Prisoners Receive USM Degrees in a Magnificent Graduation Ceremony

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For the last seven years, Maine State Prison has turned into a mini college campus for convicted felons. Prisoners attend college classes and graduate just like any other higher educational institution.

On Monday, 14 inmates graduated with degrees from University of Maine Augusta (UMA) - eight of them earned associate degrees in liberal studies and six Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies. Out of the 14 graduates, 13 graduated with honors.

Robert "Paco" Payzant, 46, graduated with an associate of arts degree in liberal studies. Payzant of Freeport is currently serving an 18-year sentence for robbery and aggravated assault. Previously, he served a 20-year sentence for armed robbery.

 "With honors," Payzant's sister, Robin Gibson, told Sun Journal. "We are so proud of him. He seems to have settled in and found his niche. This time, he'll be prepared to go back to society. We are very, very hopeful."

UMA's third graduation ceremony at the prison saw marching students, university administration in colorful regalia and commencement speeches praising the graduates for their accomplishments.

All the accolades and achievements would not have been possible without the help and support of philanthropist Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

Buffet, who funds the college education program at the Maine State Prison, said that her non-profit organization, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, offers monetary support to inmates to take college classes at the prison. Lectures from University College at Rockland, which is part of the University of Maine System, take classes inside the prison.

 "It's a form of caring about people and seeing that they have a chance," Buffet, 85 told Sun Journal. "We're turning out a lot of good citizens, from coast to coast. The joys involved in this are overwhelming."

Wearing his graduation cap and gown over his prison uniform of blue jeans and sneakers, Payzant said that he is not the same person he was when he entered prison. Once he is released, he aspires to enrol in the Peace Corps.

"My world view is totally different," Payzant told Sun Journal. "I feel awesome. Having the opportunity to be in front of Doris Buffett, giving her my love and thanks, it means everything."

The last prison graduation ceremony was held in 2011, where nine inmates received degrees. Since 2006, 35 imprisoned men have earned degrees through UMA and so far, none of the men released after graduation have returned to prison.

Praising Buffet's educational efforts, Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard said that programs such as these help reduce the risk of inmates' recidivism. It changes people's attitude towards their lives and affects behaviour positively.

"This approach might seem a little counterintuitive, but it's really the approach that works," Bouffard told KJ Online.

"Programs like this are what's going to keep these guys from coming back," Bouffard told Sun Journal. I know society will disagree with what I'm saying ... but people don't get better because you punish them."

Chris Legore, who teaches math, said that its fun teaching students at the prison.

 "It's a very wonderful experience. They're good students. They're very driven. They know when they get out, they need to have a career," Legore told Sun Journal. "They always have their homework done on time."

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