SLCC’s program at Utah State Prison has its first graduating class

The program gives 16 incarcerated people their associate degrees, and seven more get certificates of completion.

(Alec Langton) David Bokovoy, director of prison education at Salt Lake Community College, speaks to the first class of incarcerated graduates during a commencement ceremony at the Utah State Correctional Facility on July 10, 2023.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

The Prison Education Program (PEP) at Salt Lake Community College recently produced its first class of graduates.

The 23 graduates — 16 with associate degrees, seven with certificates of completion — were honored in a ceremony at the Utah State Correctional Facility on July 10.

“We are honoring the accomplishments of 23 remarkable individuals,” said program director David Bokovoy, “who stepped forward in the face of challenges, in the face of darkness, depression and other mental health challenges, and [were] determined not to surrender but instead [to] take steps forward and pursue education, knowledge, and the opportunity to grow and transform into the most powerful person and individual they can be.”

The PEP program had more than 220 students enrolled last school year, with more expected to join in the fall. The program offers 20 classes over fall and spring semesters, and enrollees can sign up for any one of six associate degrees: Anthropology, business, criminal justice, general studies, history, and paralegal studies.

“Providing education in prison makes so much sense, on both a practical and a human level,” Bokovoy said. “It transforms individuals, strengthens families and ultimately benefits society.”

Students in the program often face obstacles unfamiliar to students who aren’t incarcerated — such as writing papers by hand, having no access to the internet, and having designated time restrictions that make reading and studying more difficult.

One graduate (whose name has been omitted for privacy) said during the ceremony that “for many of us, education served as a lifeline, a way to rise above our circumstances and make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.”

The graduate said, “there were many years [in which] I was engaged in ignorance, following the leader and not knowing any better, but education opened my eyes to the reality of my condition. … And it became important to me to take charge of my life to secure my future and try to enlighten those around me.”

Making a lasting change

Christopher Bradbury, the program coordinator, said he has seen firsthand that PEP students experience lasting change for themselves and their families.

“I had a student tell me that because they are now going to college and viewing education as important, their kids are now viewing it as important,” Bradbury said. “They are going to finish high school, whereas before they didn’t really care.”

Bradbury — who teaches physical science classes at the prison — said there has also been a “cultural shift” among the inmates itself, in how education is viewed.

“Our students come to class and they’re talking about what they’re learning, and then they’re going back and talking to their peers [who] are not in college,” Bradbury said. “And you see this cultural shift of people going, ‘Oh, well, they can do it. I can do it, too.’ And that’s infectious. Gaining an education is infectious.”

The pursuit of higher education has been shown to lower the chances of a previously incarcerated person relapsing into criminal behavior. A 2022 study from the U.S. Department of Education indicated that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 48% less likely to return to prison within three years, compared to those who don’t participate.

Deneece G. Huftalin, SLCC’s president, spoke at the ceremony, noting that “as these individuals are released from prison and become our neighbors, they often face a tough transition. SLCC is happy to be helping them gain the skills and education they need to find meaningful employment.”

Sean Stetson wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.