UTAH STATE PRISON — Alicia James' smile is wide as she shakes hands down the receiving line, diploma in hand, the tassel from her yellow mortarboard hat tickling her face.
For a moment, her burgundy inmate uniform is forgotten, barely visible beneath her graduation gown.
At the end of the line, James hands the diploma back and returns to her seat under the careful watch of several guards. At 29, she is currently serving a prison sentence for burglary, drug possession and other charges. Graduating from the prison's South Park Academy high school program is one of the proudest moments she has had in several years.
"This is my first step in success," said James, who, in addition to receiving a high school diploma, scored a 21 on the ACT and hopes to attend college. "It's a good feeling, an amazing feeling. The difference is today I love myself. When I was at my lowest point, I didn't. Today I believe in myself. I know that I can achieve anything."
James joined 241 other inmates at the Utah State Prison who graduated from the program, including about 150 who participated in commencement exercises in the correctional facility's gymnasium on Wednesday. South Park Academy operates through the Canyons School District.
For some, graduation has been a long time coming. With a criminal history in Utah dating back to 1988, Rory Ross, 54, has been in and out of the state's justice system. He wept as his daughter and sister embraced him Wednesday after an extended separation, congratulating him on an accomplishment that represents so much more.
As they sat together, Ross held tightly to his daughter's hand. They talked of the jobs Ross wants to apply for after his release and the granddaughters waiting to visit with him.
"I'm really proud, he's very smart," Elizabeth Miley said of her father. "He taught me how to read, he taught me how to ride a bike, he taught me how to fish. … It's a stepping stone for him. It will give him something that he needs so that when he gets out I can baby-sit him and keep an eye on him and help him with whatever he needs."
As he graduated, Zechariah Curley, 26, was especially pleased to see his mother in the room. Genevieve Billie is serving time at the same facility as her son but is unable to see him, making the chance to celebrate both their graduations an especially emotional reunion.
"My son is actually the one that encouraged me (to graduate)," Billie said, standing at his side. "When I came here, I gave up on everything, but he's the one that told me to keep going. When he said he was going to graduate, I decided I was going to do it with him so that I could see him again. That was my goal."
Curley's goal, after he and his mother complete their sentences, is reuniting his family.
"What a better time than now to rebuild myself?" Curley said. "I'm doing what I can in here to keep up that momentum, just bettering myself and being better prepared for when I get released."
His mother agrees.
"I'm going to try to be a sober, clean mom, even though my kids are grown now," Billie said. "It's a big step for me. I'm surprised at myself that I'm actually graduating."
Curley and Billie were convicted in unrelated aggravated assault cases.
With graduates marching in full regalia, "Pomp and Circumstance" playing, addresses from classmates and administrators, and a crowd of cheering loved ones, the event felt almost like a traditional ceremony.
"(The ceremony) gives you a sense of achievement," said Nathan Ganier, chosen as one of the student speakers Wednesday. "For a lot of people, they've never experienced that in any capacity. To have that opportunity, it's really great. It's heartfelt having families here and everything. … It's one of the few things you get here that make you feel like you're away."
Addressing his classmates, Ganier urged fellow graduates to continue the positive changes they have begun making in their lives, including seeking more education. Originally from New Orleans, Ganier likened himself to a man standing on a roof as Hurricane Katrina's flood waters rose, but refusing assistance when it came.
"I am the man on the roof, and you teachers, counselors, family members and friends are all the support staff that are offering help," Ganier told the crowd. "I am not waiting anymore for anything. I am taking all of the assistance and help that is offered. We all are."
Looking out over the graduates as he spoke, Ganier, convicted in 2014 of aggravated robbery, knows that while graduation marks a positive turning point for some inmates, others will likely return to prison in the future.
"I hope that people heard my words and at least think about the changes they can make and hopefully do make," Ganier said following the ceremony. "For the ones that don't, it's unfortunate. … I just hope that the few people, if any, that I did reach, I hope that they make it. I would be satisfied with that."
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