Dozens gathered in the Maple Street Correctional Center last month to celebrate Monet Pierson, who made history as the first woman to complete her high school education while in custody at the San Mateo County jail.
On April 28, family members joined dozens of law enforcement and other officials to watch Pierson, 32, receive her diploma. A San Francisco native and inmate at the correctional facility since September 2020, Pierson was the only graduate being honored at Thursday's ceremony.
"I'm ready to reach my full potential," she told the attendees during her speech.
Pierson began her high school studies a year ago through Five Keys Schools and Programs, a local nonprofit launched in 2016 that offers free education to marginalized communities, including the incarcerated. Currently, 82 students are enrolled in the program. Thirty-one men have completed their diplomas in custody, though Pierson is the first woman—and the only one since the pandemic—to do so.
Even her teacher, Pavel Korobkov, said he never expected Pierson to do so well. Not only did she have to navigate the everyday challenges of being an inmate, he said, but she completed the majority of her studies during a pandemic when restrictions meant attending many classes online.
"That's why it's so amazing to see her do this," Korobkov said. "I think, like, 99 out of 100 would have given up. But she's that one out of 100 that didn't."
Addressing Pierson directly during the graduation ceremony, he said she was "one of my best students. So this is really an amazing achievement."
Pierson's mother, Lorraine Bender, and cousin were also in attendance and could be seen in the front row, applauding and wiping away tears.
"I'm feeling proud right now," Bender told the Pulse after the ceremony. Describing a series of stints at other facilities, Bender said that it was at Maple Street Correctional where her daughter availed herself of the inmate services and started to get her life on track. "She's on her way to a successful life now…Everything can be put behind now and she can move forward."
Bender also said she was shocked to arrive and find that her daughter was the only one graduating.
"I thought I would come here and there was going to be maybe five or six or maybe ten more inmates with her," she said. "I was like, 'Oh, my goodness! She made it through out of everybody!'"
For Pierson, choosing to complete her studies in custody meant more than just full-time schoolwork. She also asked the judge to delay her hearings to complete her diploma while still incarcerated, according to Melissa Wagner, Program Services Manager at San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.
"Most of us knew the significance of that," Wagner said. "But to the public, I'm not sure if they understand that she was choosing to stay here longer, in custody, because she knew that if she left she wouldn't finish."
As to why no other women have come before Pierson, Wagner said she thinks it’s due to a combination of factors. She noted that women tend to comprise a lower percentage of the overall incarcerated population and often already have a diploma—or are released from jail before completing it.
Initially arrested for charges of second-degree robbery, Pierson overcame chronic incarceration, mental health and substance abuse issues to earn her degree, according to a press release from the Sheriff's Office.
"Some days, you know, I didn't feel like doing the work because I didn't see nobody(sp) doing work like me," Pierson told the Pulse. "But I just kept pushing myself, like, 'No, you need to get this done. Because you know what you need to do to get off their feet. And getting your education is getting off your feet.’"
Pierson, who has her next court date in late June, hopes to be released soon and take the next steps in life—including, she hopes, attending college. She wants to study psychology and said she envisions a future as a drug and alcohol counselor.
"I know that I've had to tell this story a lot. So why don't I help people get sober and stay sober?" she said. "I just feel like if I can make it, they can make it."
She also plans to continue prioritizing her sobriety and rebuilding her relationship with her son, Mylon, and daughter, Heaven.
"In the past, I felt like a failure because I didn't finish school," she said. "And so now that I have my high school diploma, I feel like I can achieve other things, too."
Her mother, for one, does not doubt that she'll make it through college—and beyond.
"Monet is a go-getter," she said. "When she puts her mind to it, nothing can stop her."