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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Jack Daniel Knowlden is among inmates graduating from SLCC. Inmates can take a variety of classes taught in priso.

DRAPER — Seventy-two inmates at the Utah State Prison donned caps and gowns over their jumpsuits on Thursday to receive various degrees and certifications from Salt Lake Community College.

Building construction graduate and inmate Cynthia Lynn Miller said that she had never felt more proud of herself than she did at that moment, receiving an associate of applied science degree from the college. Many of the inmates' family members were present and were able to see the graduates in a new light.

"We have inmates who are here for a variety of reasons. They've made some mistakes, and this gives them something to work toward, and it gives them something to feel proud of," said Angie Welling, Utah Department of Corrections spokeswoman. "Their friends and their family are in the back of that room and they can finally hold their heads high and say, 'I've achieved this."'

Visitors were able to mingle with the graduates and meet with the professors following a ceremony in the Oquirrh Chapel at the prison site. Refreshments were provided by SLCC culinary arts students while prison guards stood by.

"Regardless of what they've done before, this is something they've worked very hard for and they can be proud of that," Welling said.

Students graduated from programs including automotive technology, visual art and design, engineering/drafting, architectural technology, electronics, building construction and construction management.

The program, conducted in facilities at the prison while using instructors and professors from the college, requires students to pay their own tuition, at a reduced rate of $88 per semester, as well as meet the same requirements as students at other SLCC campuses.

"The road to upward mobility goes right through education," said Joe Peterson, SLCC's vice president of instruction. He said the college covers a lot of the cost of providing inmate education, along with funding from various sources, because of what it can do for the community.

"We are the community's college and nothing is more important to this community than solving the problem of recidivism," Peterson said. "If we contribute to the graduates having a functional life upon parole, them playing a contributing role in society, becoming valued neighbors in society, taxpayers and citizens in our communities, then that's an important thing for us to be doing."

David James, a professor of building construction at the prison satellite, said he finds that students at the prison are the same as anywhere, that they've faced some adversity, but that once they are given the opportunity to learn they have a "student mind-set" to achieve a degree.

Department of Corrections executive director Tom Patterson told the graduates they've earned a tool in their tool belt to use when they get back into society, a tool they can "use to make a difference.

"You got your wings today. You may not use them immediately, but you have them to use when you need them," he said.

Welling said that upon release, many inmates have very little trouble finding jobs and functioning in society because they've earned a college degree.

Not all of the students who are inmates have release dates scheduled, but Welling said they are using their time in prison to do something for themselves and stay busy. Most of the certification programs range up to a year's time, but the associate of applied science degrees typically run about two years, much like a traditional college program.

Nearly 100 inmates will receive high school diplomas on June 4, issued through the South Park Academy on-site. An additional ceremony, honoring multiple high school diploma recipients, will also be held at the prison in Gunnison.


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com