Utah Prison Education Project admits first cohort of degree-seeking students

Inmates at the Utah State Prison work together during a Utah Prison Education Project program. The program on Tuesday announced the admittance of its first cohort of 15 degree-seeking students.

Inmates at the Utah State Prison work together during a Utah Prison Education Project program. The program on Tuesday announced the admittance of its first cohort of 15 degree-seeking students. (Utah Prison Education Project)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Sylia Olive didn't know that a visit from her little sister while she was incarcerated would change the course of not just her prison sentence, but her entire outlook on what her life could become.

"She asked me, very point blank ... 'When are you going to start picking us? Why are you going to keep picking these people over us?'" Olive said.

Walking back to her cell in the maximum security wing of the Utah State Prison, her sister's words hit her hard.

So, she decided to alter the course her life was on. Olive, who was serving time for participating in the murder and aggravated kidnapping of a 22-year-old woman, got out of maximum security after a captain at the prison "took a chance" on her and released her into the prison's general population to lead a program on training and caring for dogs.

Eventually, she parlayed that opportunity into taking college classes through the Utah Prison Education Project — a program aimed at advancing educational equity through on-site higher education, research and advocacy.

It was there where she met Erin Castro, co-founder of the Utah Prison Education Project and associate professor of higher education at the University of Utah.

"I started making different choices. Because I didn't want to lose school, I started hanging around different people," Olive said.

Eighteen and a half years after her conviction, Olive was released from prison.

"The only thing that I knew that I could hold on to that was consistent in my life was my education," Olive said. "So, I asked Erin to help me through the process of getting into the University of Utah."

Now, Olive is taking classes at the university in pursuit of a bachelor's degree on top of being a full-time mother and working at the U.

For prison education advocates, she is a walking testament to the value receiving an education can bring to incarcerated individuals and now, more people like Olive will get the chance at an education. The Utah Prison Education Project on Tuesday announced the admittance of its first cohort of 15 degree-seeking students currently incarcerated at the Utah State Prison.

Degree-seekers

The opportunity to offer bachelor's degrees to the 15-student group is a culmination of eight years of work, problem-solving and collaboration across the U.'s campus and at the prison, Castro said.

Students in the women's designated unit of the Utah State Prison will pursue a Bachelor of University Studies degree and a certificate in professional and technical writing from the U.

"This is the first time in our university's history that we have allowed a currently incarcerated cohort to apply to the U. We are committed to preparing students from diverse backgrounds to be leaders and global citizens who strengthen our society and democracy," said T. Chase Hagood, senior associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies at the U., in a statement.

U. faculty members and graduate assistants will travel to the prison to offer a course once a week for 2½ hours. Castro added that the Utah Prison Education Project offers "resource room hours" on two additional nights for two hours to give incarcerated students a chance to ask questions, read, write, work on assignments and work on laptops.

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"We know that in prison, it can be really difficult to access quiet space, for example," Castro said. "It can be difficult to access the peers that are taking classes with you because you're housed in different areas of the compound. We have really built into the structure a lot of meaningful time for students to be students."

On top of taking classes and studying multiple nights a week, Castro said that the incarcerated students are also working in the facility, volunteering and taking sentence-mandated courses.

"Our students are busy," Castro said. "We offer night classes right now because our students work during the day and we don't want them to have to choose between work and school."

Castro said every student in the inaugural program has at least some college education and she expects this group of students to receive their degrees in three years.

"We'll see in future years how long it will take folks to complete the program of study," Castro said, adding that the bachelor's program is starting small, taking a scaled approach to identify and navigate any obstacles that may arise in the process.

"We have to (take a scaled approach). We owe it to everybody to do this right," Castro said.

'I can use that to help somebody'

Although Olive has come far from the person she was when she was in prison, she hasn't forgotten where she came from.

To that end, Olive is currently serving as the first-ever reentry coordinator for the Utah Prison Education Project, helping people who are standing in the same shoes she once was in to pursue an education in hopes of a better future.

"Prison is a very demoralizing experience and it's very dehumanizing and I can see why the recidivism rate is so high because of that," Olive said. "I did go through that experience but at the same time, I inadvertently found something that I could hang onto that I was familiar with that I actually had control over."

She's not shying away from those experiences, either, instead leaning into them and harnessing them to impact the lives of others.

"My lived experience, I can use that to help somebody and it's not something for me to pack away," Olive said. "It's that hope that education gave me that I want to help other people find."

Olive said she believes a main reason people reoffend and return to prison is a feeling that they don't matter or don't have a sense of purpose. Education, Castro and Olive said, can change these sentiments.

Now that Olive is busy between her studies and her role with the Utah Prison Education Project, she finds herself in a situation that is wonderfully ironic: trying to get access to the prison to volunteer with the inmates.

"I told them, 'What better person to come and talk to the women than somebody that did as much time as I did?' By statistic, I should be cowering in a corner somewhere in my house or I should've been back to prison a long time ago, but I'm not." Olive said.

"Who'd have thought I'd be fighting to get back into prison?"

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Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and tech news.

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