Draper • After the diplomas were distributed and tassels turned from left to right, South Park Academy graduates walked past rows of friends and family, out the door into the morning sun.
The celebration was brief.
There would be no graduation party or backyard barbecue to laud their achievements. Instead, for the 273 inmates who received their high school diplomas at the Utah State Prison on Wednesday, they would return to their cells, to their routines, to their lives behind bars.
So much would remain the same, the inmates said. But all at once, so much changed.
“We all know how easy it is to let this place eat us alive,” said graduation speaker Zachary Diggins, 24. “Today you have accomplished something no one can take away. [...] We have made mistakes, but that does not mean we won’t be the bright future of this state and of this great country.”
For the first time, these graduates not only have diplomas — they have dreams.
Josh Conrad, 35, never made it past the ninth grade before he fell into a life of drugs and crime. Now, he wants to go to college and major in communication, hoping to one day land a job in radio.
Ashley Lagerquist, 23, gave birth to a baby girl last month as she was finishing her last high school equivalency courses. When she gets out, she’ll begin a new life for her and her daughter by going to cosmetology school, she said.
Charlene McClure, 26, wants to go to school to become a veterinary technician or a grief counselor.
Another 160 inmates at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison will graduate from high school programs next week.
As the men and women walked, single file, into a stuffy gymnasium at the prison’s Timpanogos facility, several tugged on their blue and gold graduation gowns and fiddled with their mortarboards.
Peeking out from beneath their robes, were the letters UDC (Utah Department of Corrections) stamped on the leg of their prison uniforms.
“I was so nervous putting these [robes] on this morning,” said Sarah Close, 22. “I tried to bury my feelings until I couldn’t anymore, until it was real. I was so anxious.”
Close has been in prison for two years. She will go before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole next year.
At first, she said, she didn’t think she wanted to go back to school. She stopped going to classes in the ninth grade when she was just 14 years old.
“School was difficult,” Close said. “It was just easier not to deal with it any more.”
Her story is the same as so many others who Close graduated alongside Wednesday: She started doing drugs young; she acted recklessly; she hung out with the wrong crowd.
When her younger sister began high school this year, Close noticed the girl’s grades began to slip.
“I taught her how to write her name; she’s always looked up to me, looked at my example,” Close said. “I realized I needed to do something to show her [that] education is important. I didn’t want her to turn out like I did.”
Inmates who participate in educational programs while incarcerated are 20 percent less likely to re-offend, according to a 2012 analysis by the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
Among the accolades and awards handed out Wednesday was a unique honor given to one graduate — a $1,000 scholarship to the University of Utah, where she intends to begin attending classes after her release from custody.
It was the first year the prison has partnered with the university to offer an academic scholarship to an inmate.
For Trista Chandara, 26, who received the scholarship, it’s opened up a new world of possibility.
“In the seventh grade, I had high honors; by the eighth grade I failed all my classes,” Chandara said in her speech to her fellow graduates. “I thought school was torture. Now, it’s the thing I’m starving for.”
The Utah Department of Corrections coordinates with the Canyons School District in Draper and South Sanpete School District in Gunnison to provide high school equivalency programs to its prisoners.
Several county jails that house inmates also work with local school districts to provide educational programs.
As the graduates exited the gymnasium, several held their heads higher. They were no longer fidgeting with their robes, no longer removing their caps and wringing their hands.
Diplomas held tight, the graduates walked past large loopy letters scrawled on white cinder block walls:
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from iron will.”