This Former Inmate Is Fighting for Every Prisoner’s Right to a College Degree
After budget cuts gutted prison higher-ed programs, Cheryl Wilkins demanded the chance to learn behind bars. Now she’s making sure others get the same life-changing opportunity.
Photos by Laura Baker
As Cheryl Wilkins accepted her college diploma, hundreds of women screamed her name and whooped with joy. They were so loud that Wilkins’ brother, sitting with his four-year-old daughter, couldn’t hear the girl cheering, “Auntie! Auntie!” Other family members were even more enthusiastic. When another woman’s name was called, her six-year-old daughter grabbed her hand and dragged her to the stage. “Come on Mama, get your degree!” Wilkins remembers the girl shouting. “Her daughter took the diploma and walked off the stage with it.”
Once the ceremony was over, the pictures taken and the food eaten, the mood turned tearful. Wilkins’ niece sobbed as her father led her away. “I want Auntie to come with us!” she cried. Other children screamed as family members pried them from their mothers’ arms. The visitors left through one exit and the women, many in tears, through another. The afternoon ended with all of the women being strip searched, the required practice after any …