Were it not for two guards on the rooftop patrolling the ceremony, it could've been any in a bevy of graduations held this week.
There were speeches, crisp caps and gowns, and graduates on their best behavior antsy for commencement exercises to end and festivities with food and family to begin. But guests couldn't leave Wednesday night without showing identification, and graduates had to return to their Utah State Prison housing units at the ceremony's end.Beneath a blazing late afternoon sun, school administrators and more than 100 in the 1996 graduating class of student inmates congratulated each other for taking a big step toward rehabilitation through academic achievement.
Much whooping and clapping came from family members and guests who'd had purses searched, been frisked with a metal detector and ushered through heavy gates to an outdoor area behind the Timpanogos Correctional Facility. Administrators and prison officials praised graduates for choosing to make positive changes during their incarceration.
"One day soon, all of you will be leaving and you'll be able to go out into the community and continue these changes," said James Gillespie, deputy director of Utah's Department of Corrections.
"We are proud of you today and want to see you succeed."
Three classes of graduates were acknowledged at the ceremony: four inmates received bachelor of science degrees from Utah State University; 57 earned associate degrees in building trades, automotive and electrical skills from Salt Lake Community College; and 45 received high school diplomas from Jordan School District's South Park Academy.
"You have accomplished at a time in your lives when it would have been easy to give up," said Max Lowe, assistant commissioner of vocational education and member of the State Board of Regents.
"You know many of your compatriots have taken that approach," he said. "You have taken the situation you find yourself in and turned it around."
Student inmate Larry Julian, who will graduate with honors, and cum laude with a USU business administration degree, added some levity to a ceremony heavy with metaphor and hope.
He'd honed the "ultimate sales pitch" during marketing training, he said, and relayed a conversation with his supervisor about the tactic.
"You call someone and say, "This is inmate Julian from the Utah State Prison. I know who you are and I know where you live. How much would you like . . .?' " He was kidding, of course.
In the program, he'd learned skills that will get him somewhere in life, he said. He thanked prison officials for providing an education and for avoiding the approach to: "lock 'em up and let 'em rot."
"I have a dream that crime will be reduced in America, and that this will be done through education."
It is ironic: Julian said that although research proves education cuts down recidivism among criminals, the federal government no longer allows Pell grants to inmates.
South Park Academy graduate Benjamin Werner, who is deaf and spoke in sign language through an interpreter, said he'd led a life full of frustration generated by not being able to communicate. The federal Americans With Disabilities Act has made information and education accessible to him.
Terry Duncombe, who earned an applied science degree, told the group that an education gives him and other inmates the "training for good jobs, so we can give back what we took from society."