Cesia Ortiz stood at the podium in her graduation gown and pointed to the window behind her – where barbed wire fences and towering gates loomed.
She’s held that view for 11 months in Utah State Penitentiary, where she’s serving a felony sentence. She often watched it here from the classroom, determined to graduate from high school while incarcerated.
“I realized I really wanted to be successful on the outside,” Ortiz said, “I had to get my degree.”
Adjusting her graduation robe to cover her prison-issued jumpsuit, she envisioned the day when she would no longer see the fences outside. Ortiz, 30, is due to be released next month. She said she plans to use her new degree to help her kids with their homework.
On Monday, Ortiz was among 38 inmates — her classmates — who celebrated at the first ceremony at the Salt Lake City jail since it was moved from the run-down Draper facility to this western wetland last year. Also for the past three years, the Utah Department of Corrections has not held in-person memorial services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The long-awaited day was filled with pomp and circumstance and the hope of a second chance.
A sign on the back, made by inmates who work in the prison’s printing department, read, “Congratulations, Graduates!” helped fix upside down tassels on hats.
Family members filled the blue plastic chairs to congratulate their loved ones on this achievement. Some of the graduates had been incarcerated since high school. Others dropped out early. Some parents cried as their student crossed the makeshift stage at the prison’s visitor center.
The inmates, too, were nervous and tapped the cement floor with their sneakers before their names were called and they accepted their diplomas from the program called South Park Academy.
Graduate Jose Rios-Mojica broke down in tears as he delivered his speech, describing the celebration as “día especial” — or “special day” in his native Spanish — a day he would never live to see. At 56, he was the oldest in the class to graduate on Monday. The youngest was 22.
“Maybe you don’t understand why I feel this way,” he said. “It’s not sadness, but it’s joy.”
Rios-Mojica grew up in Mexico, where he says his family moved often. He did not finish school past junior high. And then, he said, he went down the wrong path. When he came to the US, he didn’t speak English. He got involved in a crime. He was arrested in 2020 and pleaded guilty to causing harm to a child. He was sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment.
He regrets the past, he said. However, he added, the education here gave me “a chance to be a better person.”
Rios-Mojica first started the high school program while he was in Draper Prison. He began asking for books and learning remotely as COVID-19 isolated inmates in their cells.
He helped his classmates with their schoolwork and encouraged them to attend classes when they returned in person. To those who are now graduating with him, he said, “Society sees us differently because we have this uniform,” pointing to his white overalls. “But even though we’re here within these walls, there’s a lot we can do.”
Rios-Mojica is now enrolled in the prison’s high school program to begin classes at Salt Lake Community College in the fall.
Given the obstacles of the prison’s move and the pandemic, the senior year was one of the smallest in recent years. But it was a sign of the resilience of students overcoming these challenges, and a starting point for the Salt Lake City School District, which has now adopted the program in the new location to expand offerings there in the years to come.
The district currently has about 200 students enrolled in the prison’s high school diploma program.
Several of the teachers moved to the Salt Lake City Jail for Draper’s academy. And many sat in the rows behind the inmates, passing around a box of tissues while wiping away proud tears.
Chris Sullivan, Principal of South Park Academy, said at the ceremony, “It’s really inspiring to see how education can transform someone’s life.”
Of Monday’s graduates, 25 were men and 13 were women. Sixteen attended the ceremony and 14 were repeat offenders. That includes Ortiz, who is in Utah State Penitentiary for the second time. She believes that her diploma will help her find a job after her release and will discourage her from returning here. She said it motivated her.
That is the purpose of the program: to help reduce recidivism and ease the transition back into society for those released from prison.
In her speech, Ortiz welcomed this, quoting Oprah Winfrey as saying, “Honour your calling. Everyone has one.”
Other graduates read lines from Benjamin Franklin and proverbs about the glass being half full and the ball in their hands. However, the typical graduation references somehow sounded more true here within these brick walls.
“Even though I received my education in prison, I will make a difference outside of prison,” said Victoria Clown.
Clown, 33, was sentenced to two consecutive terms of one to 15 years in prison in 2020 after a person she was with fatally injured a man and they drove away together in the victim’s car. She said an education became her top priority during her time behind bars. She saw it as a way to atone for the past while looking to the future.
“We’re not bad people,” she said. “We’re just human beings who made mistakes.”
Before her incarceration, she did not have a high school diploma and tried to get a GED but never made it. As a single mother raising three children, her schooling was always put on hold, she said. When she says she never thought she’d be here, she doesn’t mean her imprisonment. She means to get her diploma.
As they announced their names at the microphone to accept their degrees, she clenched her fist in front of the window, looking not at the fences but at the sky beyond.