ATWATER -- Three other Mercedians graduated this week.
They did it without the first lady and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the first four-year graduating class at UC Merced.
They did it without the 600 mortarboards flung into the air at last night's Merced College commencement.
They did it without the limos and parties and corsages that will mark next week's high school gala graduations.
Theirs was a different and separate graduation. Sure, they wore blue gowns and caps and switched their tassels from left to right, on signal. But they did it inside a federal prison. And they did it with only the warden, a handful of prison officials and a few of their inmate buddies sitting in the audience.
Three men got their GEDs, the equivalent of a high school diploma, Friday at the Satellite Prison Camp, which sits just outside the walls and razor wire and six towers of U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.
Their commencement speaker had to fax a form to make sure his own record was clean. The speaker was told not to wear green khaki-colored clothing. The speaker could take no photographs. He was warned that his bio would be shared with inmates.
Because federal prison officials hadn't cleared the inmates' names for release, the graduates can't be congratulated here. But for the two dozen or so people gathered in the camp assembly room, this was as big a deal as all the other commencements in our county.
"It's an accomplishment nobody can take away from you," said Miguel Chavez, supervisor of education at the prison. Chaplain Hussain Sheikh talked of the "toil and struggle" they went through to get their diplomas.
Probably proudest of all was Hector Rios Jr., the warden, who's been at USP Atwater for all of seven months. For the El Paso, Texas, native, who's worked in 12 federal penal institutions across the county, the diplomas added one more piece of proof that his leadership at the once-troubled prison was working.
Rios assumed his fourth tour as a federal warden after the prison had undergone its worst turmoil in years. In June of last year, corrections officer Jose Rivera, 22, was killed by two inmates already serving life sentences at the high-security prison, which today houses 1,104 inmates.
(The minimum security camp holds about 120 inmates, nonviolent, white-collar criminals, drug cases and even, for three months, Barry Bonds' trainer.)
In the wake of Rivera's death, the prison was locked down for weeks, a community group formed to lobby for safer practices for corrections officers, the warden was transferred and Rios, 48, was brought in.
By most accounts, the prison is a tighter, safer place now than before he arrived. Andy Krotik, one of the leaders of the community group, said earlier this month that "it's completely different now," that conditions have "dramatically improved."
Take a walk in the yard with Rios after lunch at 10:30 a.m. Rios, who wears a brush mustache and is built like Walt Garrison, a fullback for his beloved Dallas Cowboys, calls many of the inmates by name. "Aight?" he asks. The prisoners nod and say, "Rios," or "Sir." He does the same in Spanish with the Latino inmates, who make up a third of the population.
Earlier, he stopped a lone black inmate, walking along the fence outside the huge rec area -- a softball diamond, basketball and boccie courts, horseshoe pitch, jogging track and soccer field.
"Hey, big guy," Rios says, "Why are you on the west side (housing units)?" The inmate mutters something about a gate being locked. "You're spinnin' me!" Rios says. Then he relents. "This one's on me," he says, as the inmate heads back to where he belongs.