From the school of hard knocks to school within prison walls is not an easy step, but one that can pay big dividends.

Wednesday night, 56 inmates of Utah State Prison received diplomas, degrees or certificates in recognition of completing academic and vocational programs.Thirty-four received high school diplomas through the prison's South Park Academy; 12 were commended for fulfilling requirements for general equivalency diplomas; nine received certificates indicating completion of a carpentry program; and one received a college bachelor's degree - his second.

Michael Ross Driggs, who earlier had been presented a degree in business administration, earned a second, this time in psychology. It was presented by Dr. Miles Meservy of Utah State University.

Tim Searcy, who represented the high school graduates, said he, too, will work toward a college degree while in prison.

"Thanks to this program and others, I am on the right track, with a much more sensible outlook," said Searcy. He said his life had included a broken home, beatings and abuse as a child, an adolescence plagued by running away from home, delving into drugs, a failed marriage and, finally, prison.

His diploma represents an honest credential to show potential employers "I am able to successfully complete a task," he said. He expressed appreciation for the opportunity to get the education that "will open doors and new avenues . . . so we can be able to benefit ourselves and society."

South Salt Lake Mayor James Davis told the graduates "It isn't so much where you've been as where you're going in this life that matters."

He recounted his own determination to get a college education, although his background and academic record led advisers to try to steer him into other paths.

"It made me angry enough to graduate with honors," he said.

Every life has its failures, he said, drawing from his own experience last year in an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor as Ted Wilson's running mate on the Democratic ticket. The lost political race "extended me beyond what I had been. I became a better person. That made me a winner, not a loser."

He encouraged the prison inmates to continue learning and to prepare to "give to life as well as take from it. We grow from giving."

Deputy Warden Fred Hurst also advised the group to continue to set goals and stick with them regardless of difficulties. Referring to Caesar's decision to cross the Rubicon River, thus committing himself to a battle against Pompey for power in ancient Rome, Hurst told the graduates to consider carefully, then commit to additional improvement.

Those who fail to set objectives and discipline themselves to doggedly pursue them become "accidental men," he said. "They fail because they haven't really made up their minds about what they want to do . . . circumstances and other people's opinions control the destiny of the accidental man."

He suggested the prisoners study a situation, weigh possibilities and then make a decision worth sticking with.

Dr. Grant Pullan, assistant superintendent for the Jordan District, accepted the graduates, who received diplomas from Dr. Don Carpenter, chairman of the Jordan Board of Education. The graduates from the carpentry program operated by Salt Lake Community College were accepted by Elwood Zaugg of the college's Division of Construction Services and Industries and received certificates from SLCC Vice President Anne Erickson.

Nick Clatterbuck, who was not able to attend the ceremony, was honored as the outstanding student for the year. He earned 16 credits, compared with the average six earned by high school students, had 100 percent attendance and "continues what he starts, despite frustrations," said Martha Sue O. Kelly, academy principal.