‘I feel limitless': Female prisoners get equal-opportunity education with new certification programs
The correctional facility and DavisTech celebrated the addition of three new certification programs available to female prisoners, bringing it to a total of five
For six hours a day, five days a week, Cesia Ortiz doesn't feel like a prisoner anymore.
That's because she is taking the 900-hour culinary arts certification program at the Utah State Correctional Facility through Davis Technical College. When she and other inmates graduate from the program, they'll receive certificates helping to secure job placement in the food service industry post-release.
"We get to feel like we're doing something more productive with our lives. Once we're there, we're not treated like inmates," Ortiz said.
On Friday, the correctional facility and DavisTech celebrated the addition of three new certification programs available to female prisoners, bringing it to a total of five. Along with culinary arts and business administration, which have been offered at the prison for 14 years, female inmates can now take courses on automation and robotics, web and graphic design, and information technology. The new programs began July 25, equalizing the number of programs available for incarcerated men and women.
"These certifications create new possibilities for women. They're not just leading to jobs, they're leading to careers," Anndrea Parrish, Utah Department of Corrections programming director, said Friday.
DavisTech chose these programs based on their high job placement and their integral role in the Utah labor market, in the hopes that inmates who take these certification courses will have a high chance of successfully transitioning back into the community and the workforce post-release.
Parrish thanked the inmates Friday for the behavioral cooperation that helps them earn placement in the courses, and for their determination in completing them.
"I want to thank you … for entertaining what is uncomfortable and what is not easy, for the possibility of a brighter future for yourselves and your families," Parrish said. "You have chosen what is right over what is easy."
‘Corrections, not punishment’
Parrish said a major factor in securing more educational opportunities at the prison comes from the work of Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake. Ballard has spent all five of her years as a state legislator advocating for an increase in equal-opportunity education in Utah's correctional facilities.
She said she visited the Utah State Correctional Facility a few years ago and noticed the disparity in certification options offered to the men at the prison versus the women. She went on to sponsor HB194, passed in March 2022, to ensure more educational opportunities at prisons, and equal opportunities for both men and women who are incarcerated.
"The opportunities to earn a living and have wages that can support a family were vastly different between the men and women, so opening this up for women is a game changer," Ballard said.
She emphasized the purpose of a correctional facility is to help rehabilitate prisoners into people who can become part of a community again.
"There's a reason why it's called corrections, not punishment," Ballard said.
Ballard is on the Utah Board of Higher Education's Higher Education and Corrections Council, which works to improve education in prisons. She is also working on adjustments to HB203, which didn't pass in this year's session but would facilitate higher education for inmates in county jails, assign advisors to facilities to help ensure prisoners' success and would remove the requirement for inmates to pay 50% of their tuition.
‘Investing in my future’
Sterling West, a culinary arts instructor at the facility, says the culinary program takes prisoners through an entire cuisine curriculum from seafood to pasta to pastries.
"These are life skills, so even if they don't go into the industry, there's nothing wrong with knowing how to cook," West said. "It's just life skills that set them up for success."
Miranda Jones has already graduated from the prison's culinary program, and is now working through the automation and robotics course. She and her late father used to work on old classic cars together, so she said she appreciates the chance to learn more about how to work on new cars.
"Knowledge is power," she said.
Heidi Rasmussen is studying in the information technology program with the hope of someday opening her own internet cafe through her certification.
"I've been coming in and out of prison for many years, and every time I take a class … I get a little bit more confident," Rasmussen said. "Even though I'm in this limited environment, every time I step in a classroom, I feel limitless."
"I'm investing in my future," she added.
"It's been a good experience to see the drive that they have," Heywood said of the prisoners. "They definitely want to change."
Manda Mcaffee is one of the inmates taking the 900-hour web and graphic design course, starting with an introductory course on digital marketing.
Prior to her incarceration, she worked in business administration. But Mcaffee said she has always wanted the chance to learn graphic design, and she's hopeful it will open up more job opportunities for her post-release.
"It just means that I will have more opportunities," she said.