Matthew Holman was still locked up at the Utah State Prison when he finished his associate degree. He received his certificate at a small outdoor ceremony, where he got to share a beautiful summer day with his family.
It was a treat, but he didn’t think much of the accomplishment. He had bigger plans that started with finishing his bachelor’s degree within the next year. But then, the funding for the Utah State University program was cut.
This was more than a decade ago, a move that put his education on hold until he was released from prison in 2017 after being incarcerated for 15 years.
He quickly enrolled at the University of Utah, and, last month, donned a cap and gown and accepted his bachelor’s degree.
It was a moment that represented a long journey for Holman, from committing violent crimes while still a college student to spending years in prison to a second chance at life.
“It was awesome,” he said of his graduation ceremony. “It felt incredible.”
It’s an opportunity that state and federal officials hope to bring to tens of thousands of incarcerated people, though it will likely take an act of Congress. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is pushing a bill that once again would make prisoners eligible for federal financial aid.
Lee says that even those who commit heinous crimes have the potential to be rehabilitated — and they’ll have better outcomes if they are allowed to learn and acquire new skills.
“Nearly all prisoners at some point will walk free,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And so we have to ask the question: Do we want them to succeed and become law-abiding citizens? Or do we want them to reoffend?”
Holman was in his third semester at Brigham Young University in 2000 when he invited a 17-year old freshman to his parents’ house for dinner and a movie. When she arrived, no one but Holman was there. He raped her.
Holman took a plea deal, admitting to forcible sexual abuse and attempted rape. BYU expelled him and banned him from ever returning.
“I felt like I was in control for a moment, like I was in control over someone else like I’m not in control of myself,” Holman said in a videotaped statement to Orem police, according to a Provo Daily Herald story.
Utah County Deputy Attorney David Sturgill told the judge, "Those are the words of a true rapist.”
Holman apologized before being sentenced to a term of up to 15 years in prison.
Shortly after that he was also convicted of robbing a bank.
There wasn’t much to do when he first got to prison, Holman recalled, but he thought he wouldn’t be there that long. He was shocked when he got word months later that his first parole hearing wouldn’t be for six years.
He found out about the college program, and though he hadn’t been a great student, he thought he’d give it a try.
“I wanted to go do that in a sense to make up for some of the mistakes in my life,” he said. “I can’t make up for all of them, but I can make up for a number of them.”
Being a college student behind bars was different than his experience at BYU. His classroom was just down the hall from his cell. He didn’t have access to the internet. But he was learning, challenging himself in ways he hadn’t when he was at a traditional university setting.
“It allowed me to prove to myself that I wasn’t a failure in all things,” Holman said.
And he noticed the prisoners around him were learning, too.
There were some who hadn’t picked up a book in years who had started reading work from philosophers and changing their worldview. Others were older inmates taking their first college courses after getting their high school diploma behind bars.
Getting an education, Holman said, helped him and other inmates realize they could do more once they got out. They didn’t have to get jobs doing menial labor. They could dream bigger.
“You made mistakes and you’ve hurt people,” Holman said. “And you can’t ever make up for the people directly that you’ve hurt. But you can positively affect other people’s lives in other ways. And I think that education gives people the power and the ability to do that.”
‘Not simply warehousing offenders’
Opportunities for people to get an education while incarcerated have dwindled. The program that allowed Holman to earn his degree at the Draper prison was cut in 2007. And years before that, prisoners lost their access to Pell Grants after President Bill Clinton in 1994 signed a sweeping “tough-on-crime” bill that among other things banned incarcerated persons from getting federal aid for college.
In recent years, there’s been a rethinking, pushed by Democrats, such as former President Barack Obama, and Republicans, like Utah’s Mike Lee. So far, the government has tried a pilot program offering Pell Grants to a limited number of inmates in a limited number of locations.
Lee has co-sponsored the REAL Act, a bill that would restore Pell Grant eligibility for inmates nationwide. Lee said the goal is to give inmates more opportunities when they are released.
The Utah senator said he hopes to get the support of the Trump administration. Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, told The New York Times last year that she felt reinstating Pell Grants for inmates is “a very good and interesting possibility.”
The bill is a follow-up to the First Step Act, sweeping legislation passed last year that overhauled the federal sentencing system to lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, expand job training and boost early-release opportunities.
“The REAL Act provides another way to ensure we are not simply warehousing offenders,” Lee said, “and we’re providing a meaningful opportunity for rehabilitation.”
Locally, the University of Utah Prison Education Project had been working to bring college-level courses back to the prison. Inmates can earn their associate degree through Salt Lake Community College, according to U. professor Erin Castro, but there’s no way for inmates to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Volunteers teach two courses at the Draper prison, but they are not for credit. Castro says they don’t have the funding to cover tuition for the students — and the students themselves can’t pay for the coursework while incarcerated.
“If we were to go inside right now and say we’ll serve those who can pay right now, that’s going to be a very small sliver of people who are pretty privileged,” she said. “That is not aligned with the mission of what we do.”
To Castro, it’s not just about reducing recidivism rates — a common argument made to support prison education programs — but a way to help inmates learn to problem solve, to empower them in their lives and to help them get jobs where they are treated with respect and dignity.
A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice estimates that 64% of the 1.5 million people in prison across the United States could be eligible for Pell Grant funding. The institute noted that people who receive post-secondary education behind bars are more likely to get jobs that pay more and are less likely to commit new crimes.
But an education can help change lives, and Holman said it’s changed his.
Just weeks outside of graduation, he’s already at work at a marketing job. He’s thinking of the future, of maybe going back to school for his master’s degree involving data and analytics — though he’s unsure that will be possible if the program doesn’t allow felons.
He’s been trying to volunteer where he can with the U.’s Prison Education Project, but that’s also limited because he can’t go back to the prison now.
Holman knows he’s not the most sympathetic advocate for prisoner education programs, but he sees value in their expansion and in legislation like that pushed by Lee. His degree is what gives him the most hope that he can make it outside of a prison cell.
“I can’t make up or undo the past,” he said. “But moving forward, I’m trying to positively influence lives. Not just to make up for it, but because that’s what I believe is right.”