On July 10, Salt Lake Community College’s Prison Education Program (PEP) at the Utah State Correctional Facility congratulated its first round of graduates. There were 23 graduates in total, all of whom have been in the program since its genesis in 2017.
Of the 23 PEP graduates, 16 received associate degrees, and seven received certificates of completion. The commencement ceremony opened with remarks from program director David Bokovoy.
“We are honoring the accomplishments of 23 remarkable individuals … 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,” Bokovoy said.
This past year, over 220 students enrolled in the PEP, with more expected to join in the fall. With a total of 20 classes that take place during the fall and spring semesters, PEP enrollees can sign up for any one of six associate degrees. Their choices include 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 have faced obstacles that others might overlook, such as writing papers by hand and having no access to the internet, as well as designated time restrictions that make reading and studying more difficult.
“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,” one graduate said during the commencement ceremony, whose name has been omitted for privacy.
“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,” they continued. “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
The students enrolled in the PEP will experience lasting change for themselves and their families, according to program coordinator Christopher Bradbury, who has seen this firsthand.
“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 recalled. “They are going to finish high school, whereas before they didn’t really care.”
Changes are also happening within the prison itself and in how education is viewed. It is being called a “cultural shift,” which Bradbury, who also teaches physical science classes at the prison, gladly welcomes.
“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 that 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 is shown to lower the chances of a previously incarcerated individual relapsing into criminal behavior. A 2022 study from the U.S. Department of Education indicated that incarcerated individuals who participate in educational programs are 48% less likely to return to prison within three years than those who do not.
“As these individuals are released from prison and become our neighbors, they often face a tough transition,” said SLCC President Dr. Deneece G. Huftalin. “SLCC is happy to be helping them gain the skills and education they need to find meaningful employment.”