Education

A step toward 'normal things'

Inmate earns diploma and better chance for a good job

Jacoby Pledge (center) talks to his math teacher — Kirkwood Community College instructor Andrew Hayward (left) — as Pledge celebrates Tuesday with his wife, Megan (right), after receiving his HiSET high school equivalency diploma at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jacoby Pledge (center) talks to his math teacher — Kirkwood Community College instructor Andrew Hayward (left) — as Pledge celebrates Tuesday with his wife, Megan (right), after receiving his HiSET high school equivalency diploma at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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ANAMOSA — A single eye — looking through papers rolled up like a telescope — peered at 3-year-old Jaylen Pledge.

The boy, tickled, buried his face in his mom’s chest. Warily, playfully, he peeked out. Jacoby Pledge pulled up his paper scope once more and repeated the peek-a-boo game with his son, who visits him twice a week in the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

But today was different, It was graduation.

Pledge, 25, clad in a royal blue cap and gown, processed last Tuesday afternoon with 11 of his peers getting high school diplomas past rows of onlooking family members in the medium- to maximum-security prison’s main visiting room.

The ceremony has become a tradition to celebrate those who — while serving time — complete a high school degree through Kirkwood Community College or achieve some type of professional certification through the Anamosa State Penitentiary Apprenticeship Program.

This year, 16 inmates finished an apprenticeship and 13 achieved a high school education either by completing their diploma or passing five high school equivalency tests in math, writing, science, reading and social studies.

Once offenders are released from a prison, finding gainful employment is a key factor in keeping them from reoffending and returning. In addition to being able to earn a high school diploma, offenders have 17 vocational training programs to consider.

Not all of the inmates were available to participate in Tuesday’s ceremony. But Pledge was, and he sat in the front row as his wife, Megan, paced with their son near the back of the room.

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“This is a joyous occasion, as well as a privilege,” Pledge said when invited to the microphone to say a few words as a new graduate. “This program has empowered me to lift my head high in knowing that now I can either further my education once I’m released or be able to provide for my family with a better paying job.”

That vision — of a simple life in Cedar Rapids with his wife and two boys — has kept him going through his darkest days, Pledge said, since being sentenced in June 2015 to a minimum of seven years for second-degree robbery.

That includes eight months in “the hole” — 23 hours a day of lockdown with no outside communication.

“That was the roughest time in my whole life,” Pledge said. “It was the beginning of the rest of my life.”

Growing up in Cedar Rapids, he said his mom was around. But he mostly did what he wanted.

Hung out with friends. Smoked some weed.

“Tried to grow up too fast,” he said.

Pledge bounced around from Jefferson High to Metro High before dropping out in his sophomore year. On Feb. 3, 2015, he was with the wrong crowd, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

“I was at a party with some friends, and they were stealing stuff,” he said. “When we were in the car ... a lot of people ran up on the car. And I had a weapon on me, and I pointed the weapon, and that made it a robbery.”

But he’s quick to add, “I’m not actually upset that it happened.”

“Because it changed my life,” he said. “I’m actually thankful that I came here. Because I’m a totally different person now.”

Pledge said he didn’t feel that way immediately. The idea of being behind bars for at least seven years was daunting. Impossible to grasp.

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“That’s mind-boggling,” he said. “Seven years. That’s a long time.”

Pretty quickly after landing in prison, Pledge found himself in the hole — pegged for an assault he said he didn’t commit.

“It’s horrible. It definitely is,” he said. “It’s nothing to play with.”

He went into survival mode, structuring his solitary days into chunks of sleeping, reading and eating.

“Some people, they make homemade chess boards and you got to yell from cell to cell — ‘A3,’” he said. “You just sit there and do a little cardio in the space you have. But it’s mostly just reading and sleeping.”

His saving grace from the beginning, Pledge said, was his wife. They met at 19. She was four-months pregnant when he was incarcerated. She urged him to turn himself in.

“I was like, you messed up, own up to it, we’ll get through it,” she said in an interview. “You just got to move on, and I’m happy that he did. He probably wouldn’t have done this, or gotten better, if he didn’t.”

The couple wed while Pledge was in prison. He still hangs every day on her words, specifically on her emailed words.

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“If it wasn’t for her — I can’t even say it,” he said. “I wouldn’t have nothing to look forward to.”

When he emerged from the hole, Pledge stopped talking to other inmates. He keeps mostly to himself. He studies. He plans for his release in 2022.

“She makes it easy,” he said. “She makes me want to be better for her.”

When he gets out, Pledge said he plans to get a job in heating and cooling or plumbing. He’ll probably pursue an apprenticeship while at Anamosa. And he said he’ll never again take his freedom or his responsibilities for granted.

“Nobody understands the value of life, of just walking to the store,” he said. “Normal things — a lot of people don’t understand what that really means until it’s taken way. And I had them taken away.”

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