Sixty-eight inmates receive high school diplomas at Central Utah Correctional Facility
By Collin Overton
GUNNISON—On a Wednesday afternoon in Gunnison, 68 men in cap and gowns crossed the stage to receive their high school diplomas. But instead of a school gym or auditorium, the ceremony took place deep within the walls of Central Utah Correctional Facility.
“Whatever your motivation has been, you’re sitting here because you want to write a new chapter in your life,” guest speaker Victor Kersey, the institutional programming division director at Utah Department of Corrections said to graduates of Central Utah Academy (CUA), an educational program for inmates at the prison under the South Sanpete School District.
Each year, CUA graduates dozens of inmates who have yet to earn their high school diplomas, keeping them up to speed on state education requirements for math, English and other core areas. Over 1030 people are enrolled in the program, which graduates about 60 a year, said Rebecca Thompson, Central Utah Academy spokesperson.
Kersey made opening remarks to the graduates. He stressed education’s ability to “level the playing field” and set people on new paths.
“It’s something that’s yours forever…no one can take an education away from you,” Kersey said.
After his opening words, Warden Shane Nelson took to the podium and honored CUA principal Mark Hugentobler for eight years of service to the academy.
Two graduates also spoke about their time at the academy, what it taught them and what it meant for their future.
Eduardo Miranda Carmona, an inmate from Mexico who grew up in California, said he thought “what’s the point?” when he first entered the program.
“At first I didn’t care about school. I come from a place where education isn’t important,” Carmona said.
But teachers at the academy changed his mind. Carmona said they took an interest in him, created an environment that welcomed him and pushed him to pass his courses. He said that although he likely faces deportation after his sentence is up, he sees a reason for putting in all the work.
“The reason is simple… for my mom (who was in the audience)…it would put a smile on her face,” Carmona said.
Another graduate, Robert Abbott, talked at lengths about how CUA put him on a career path to becoming a web developer. When he went to apply for an inmate job at the facility, Hugentobler told to earn his diploma first, he said.
Abbott expressed gratitude towards his instructors, who helped him enjoy his coursework and seek opportunities he “wouldn’t otherwise have.”
“Not only do I believe in miracles—I rely on them,” Abbot said.
There was music too; inmate John Blanchard and two others performed a cover of “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor before Mark Olson, president of the South Sanpete School Board accepted the graduates.
Assistant Principal of CUA Mark Olson made following remarks, urging the graduates to use their education and talents to better the world.
“Be grateful every day for opportunities you have to learn…then use your talents and your gifts to help those around you,” Olson said.
After South Sanpete School Board and Corrections presented 67 diplomas, Hugentobler and CUA Vice Principal Andy Peterson made closing comments. Peterson said he came into the facility with preconceived notions, but those faded as he got to working with the students.
“I’ve seen ideas challenged, including my own,” Peterson said.
Hugentobler shared a similar sentiment, saying his first year as principal challenged him to think differently about people in prison. He likened the graduates’ potential to a story in the pamphlet about a boy tossing a washed-up starfish back into the ocean, despite being told he couldn’t make a difference.
Now that the inmates were “back in the ocean,” Hugentobler said, they could assume the role of the boy in the story and help others who were in their situation.
“Be the little boy…seeing the need, stopping and helping…” he said, “As soon as you become the boy, you take on that role—the role of a leader.”