Salt Lake Community College’s Prison Education Program has 23 new grads
Ferosa Bluff, 51, faced some unique challenges to get her associate’s degree from Salt Lake Community College. For starters, she couldn’t use the internet and all of her papers had to be handwritten.
“And we also know the prison isn’t the quietest place to write a term paper,” Bluff said during a graduation ceremony Monday at the Utah State Correctional Facility.
Bluff, whose red jumpsuit was obscured by a black graduation robe, was one of 23 inmates graduating from SLCC’s Prison Education Program. It was the first college graduation since SLCC started to offer courses for credit in 2017. Students, families, friends and teachers sat in blue plastic chairs while correction officers stood on either side of the room and in the back.
Sixteen graduates received associate’s degrees and seven received a certificate of completion for general education.
Graduates that are released on parole will be able to use their education to start their life outside of prison. For other graduates that have life sentences, like Bluff, and are either not eligible for parole or might not receive parole, their education will go toward improving themselves.
Bluff commended her fellow classmates for persisting despite the challenges. She said she noticed a “paradigm shift” at the prison after the associate’s degree program started.
“Students began discussing what they were learning and studying in school with those who were not enrolled in college. Conversations became more positive, and individuals began focusing on external matters, such as global affairs, rather than the internal dynamics of prison life,” Bluff said. “Education became the great equalizer in prison.”
Bluff is now taking classes through the University of Utah and hopes to receive a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.
All five of the student speakers at the ceremony talked about how taking college classes led to personal growth.
David Bokovoy, director of prison education at SLCC, said giving inmates an education is an effective way to decrease recidivism that’s backed by research. He said most of the students received their high school diplomas while incarcerated.
Unlike technical training, which gives inmates a skill that they can use once they are released, Bokovoy said taking general education classes “changes the way that they see themselves and society as a whole.”
“[They] learn to work with others who see the world very differently, this is what happens in these college classes. And that is able to be taken right out onto the streets and used in our communities.”
Bokovoy said he’s heard from a lot of students who said getting an education was the most transformative part of their time in prison.
During the ceremony, SLCC President Deneece Huftalin read a testimonial from a student who said when they entered the prison, their principal values were “physical strength and cunning”. But through higher education, they replaced those values with “empathy, collaboration and respect.”
In 2020, SLCC was designated as a Second Chance Pell institution by the U.S. Department of Education. This means incarcerated students can use federal Pell Grants to cover the cost of their classes. The grants were later expanded to include all inmates who qualify in state and federal prisons nationwide.
Bokovoy hopes this will increase the number of graduates each year. Currently, SLCC anticipates 300 students will register for the fall 2023 semester. He said they are also working toward providing laptops for the students.
One of the student speakers, Trovon Ross, 49, challenged the prison administration to invest even more in prison education.
“The importance of education is not temporary, it’s lifelong,” Ross said. “So, when you know better, education, you do better, elevation.”