Utah Department of Corrections

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Nearly 40 men and women graduated this week from vocational training certificate programs offered at the Utah State Prison by Davis Applied Technology College. For each graduate, the hard-earned certificate offers one of the surest ways to avoid a return to prison. 

A 2012 University of Utah analysis found that recidivism is reduced 18 percent by secondary vocational education alone — and by 38 percent when an offender is able to get a job based on that education upon release to the community.

Davis Applied Technology College has provided vocational training at the prison since 2010. In the past five years, including this year, 326 inmates have graduated from DATC after completing from 900 credit hours (Maintenance Technician) to 1380 credit hours (Business Technology). Many go on to complete additional training at the college once they're released.

Inmates participating in DATC's vocational programs must cover half the tuition ($3,683 in FY2015)— either with their own funds and/or with low-¬interest student loans. The other half of the tuition is covered through a telephone fee paid by inmates and their families. To be eligible for enrollment, an inmate must already have graduated from high school or completed a GED program.

On Wednesday, 18 women received certificates in either Culinary Arts or Business Technology.

Graduate and student speaker Felicia McClure, who received a certificate in Business Technology, said she arrived at prison with any dreams or goals and resisted getting into the high school program. Now, having achieved the milestone of completing vocational training, McClure's plans are many: She'll pursue becoming a plumber once released from prison and hopes to open her own plumbing business some day.

McClure, impressed by the example of Karl Winsness and his Willy the Plumber Scholarship program for children of inmates, said she plans to join that effort to raise scholarship money.

"Service is the biggest thing for me," McClure said at Wednesday's graduation ceremony.

Wanda Held, who is the student of the year for Utah's eight Applied Technology Colleges, also spoke to the graduates. Held shared her story of unexpectedly becoming a single mom with three young children and having to start her life over again from "ground zero."

Held said she was able to pick herself back up. "Do you know how good that feels?" she asked. "You will."

"Take every opportunity you are given," Held encouraged the graduates. "If you fall, get back up. ... Listen to your instructors because what they are saying is gold in your hands." 

Twenty-¬nine men received certificates on Thursday in one of the following programs: Welding; Business Technology; Automotive; Industrial Maintenance; and Culinary Arts.

Graduate and student speaker Patrick Jones, who received a certificate in Automotive Technology and is now pursuing a certificate in welding, said the hardest decision he made was enrolling in the DATC program. But by taking that first step, he and the rest of the graduates have "greatly improved our chances of success."

It won't be easy, he acknowledged, because of the "black mark by our names." But he encouraged the graduates to keep going, keep trying, because there are plenty of employers willing to give them a chance.

The men also heard from Jason Thornton, who has successfully rebuilt his life after serving a federal prison sentence. Thornton is founder of a new group called Unshackled that aims to help offenders who have culinary arts training get jobs.

"Life does get better," he said.

Congrats to the graduates!