Utah Tech program creates opportunities for incarcerated youth
The Salt Lake City Library is busy with life, people working and browsing the shelves while a group begins to form downstairs. They’re here for an art show unlike any other.
Most of the artists couldn’t be at the show opening. That’s because they’re students in Utah’s only higher education program for incarcerated youth, run through Utah Tech University.
Mollie Hosmer-Dillard is their teacher. As an arts educator and artist herself, she works with her students and the community to create collaborative works of art and help people express themselves. She says working with incarcerated students isn’t too different from a traditional class.
“The students in my class are unbelievably engaged and intelligent and sweet and come up with like, with incredible ideas.”
Brett Peterson, the Director of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services in Utah, attended the show to witness the public’s reception of the program.
“We get to see here, we get to see all this artwork. And, you know, it's awesome, and it's cool, and it's fun. But what it's doing is it's centering on positive youth development. If we build our system on positive youth development, we get better outcomes with the young people we serve, we reduce their risk quicker, and that results in a safer community,” he said.
He says programs, like this art show, give incarcerated youth a chance to receive a quality education and see what they’re capable of.
“I love the 'why of this work, you know, getting to see young people change. And when I walk into a facility, the first thing every young person that I talked to that’s been involved in this program, that's the first thing they'll tell me. They'll be like, ‘Hey, I'm taking a college class right now. I never thought I could do that. Now I am.’ That's pretty powerful.”
The Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth program is the brainchild of Nathan Caplin, a professor at Utah Tech and now, the program’s director. He first had the idea when working at Snow College.
“We did a lot of interactive video courses with rural students, where they did not have at their high schools the opportunity for Concurrent Enrollment, and, you know, just occurred to me, why don't we do the same thing for incarcerated youth, if we can do it for young people throughout rural Utah?”
He worked with Rep. Lowry Snow and Brett Peterson to create the program. In March of 2021, after it had been passed in the State Legislature, Gov. Cox signed House Bill 279 to officially create the program.
While COVID-19 slowed progress in many other areas, Peterson says the distance learning measures put in place during the pandemic helped them create a better program for incarcerated students.
“It was a post-COVID kind of realization, that, oh, wait a minute, we can deliver world-class, education, college education to these kids, we can use Zoom. And it was just something we didn't think about before. So it was all those things kind of coming together at the right time. And it created this really awesome program. And the legislature, they've continued to fund it and you know, we're serving more and more kids every year,” he said.
Caplin says the program has been successful in engaging incarcerated students - and that those students have also seen success in their classes.
“So far about 82 students have taken classes. We're getting close to 50% of the students participating. And among the 50%, or 82 students, their average GPA is 3.16. And they've earned well over 500 credits, several of them are very close, just short one math class, they're very close to earning a general education certificate, which is transferable among all the public universities and colleges,” Caplin said.
In addition to their academic success, Caplin has seen the students grow personally.
“Among the students I've talked to, their expectations with respect to academics have skyrocketed since participating in this program,” he said.
While Caplin says some people have questioned spending tax dollars on the program, he says it is one of the best things we can do to improve outcomes for incarcerated youth.
“There's every reason in the world in my opinion, that we want to offer education so they can become more productive citizens when they exit the juvenile justice system.”
“Probably the very most important protective factor we can do for young people that come into our system is education. We're always looking for any opportunity to focus on positive youth development. We're gonna go all in on that,” Brett Peterson agreed.
The art show is on display at the City Library until January 4, but the real results of the Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth program will be seen in the lives of those students, well into the future.