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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Inmate Johnnie Millsap celebrates as he gets his diploma during the graduation of the Canyons School District's South Park Academy at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, June 13, 2012.
I feel like I've accomplished something that I've always wanted to accomplish. —Amy Esguerra

UTAH STATE PRISON — The graduates sat in neat rows Thursday, decked out in satin caps and gowns of blue and gold.

Pomp and circumstance was played and names called out to cheers and applause. They sat in a gymnasium painted with inspirational phrases. "Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from iron will."

But instead of young teenagers, the graduates were 340 inmates at the Utah State Prison who were receiving high school diplomas from the Canyons School District's South Park Academy.

Jamal Willis, a former running back for BYU and the San Francisco 49ers, addressed them. He talked about hope and adversity.

Amy Esguerra knew about that. She found adversity in her struggle with drug abuse and in the math classes she had to take before she could don that gold cap and gown.

"Stick it out," she said. "Do your homework and just stick it out. It's worth it in the end."

Esguerra, 39, said it was drug abuse that kept her from graduating from high school in the first place. She was sentenced to prison in 2010 for drug-related charges.

She has been in custody 15 months and has about six more to go. When she gets out, she said it will be a different story.

"I feel like I've accomplished something that I've always wanted to accomplish," Esguerra said. "I want to do bigger and better things. I want to stay drug free and I want to accomplish things in life. I want to help other kids."

It took Richard Fisco, 76, close to 60 years to finish high school. After dropping out of Salt Lake City's South High School between his freshman and sophomore years, Fisco graduated as one of South Park Academy's Students of the Year. It wasn't all smooth sailing, though. 

"The only thing that was hard for me was algebra," Fisco said. "It ate my breakfast. I'd rather have learned Arabic or Russian or something else because algebra was a whole new language for me."

Fisco is serving a life sentence on a number of child sex abuse charges and said he decided to participate in the program to take advantage of his time there.

"I didn’t really enjoy high school as a young man but I've enjoyed it here and I've had some good mentors here and teachers," he said. "When I come out of here I want to face society with a sincere heart and a real intent … and that's my objective — to be a better person than I ever was when I came in."

Jerry Vigil, 38, said he has been in and out of prison for 15 years for various charges and is ready to move forward with his life. He is hoping the diploma will help with that.

"I didn't have it in the past so I'd get out and, with a lot of jobs, you need a high school diploma," Vigil said. "Now, I'm hoping I can go and get something good with it."

As a youth, he became involved in drugs and gangs and it landed him in prison off and on. Finally, he decided to commit to taking part in the Monday, Wednesday and Friday classes.

"Getting motivated, getting up and going — that was the biggest part for me," he said. "Nobody holds your hand. You got to get up and do it yourself."

"It was good, Vigil added. "I knew, in the end, it would be good."

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