Utah Prison Education Project partners with BYU

The University of Utah Prison Education Project is one of the nation’s leaders in prison education programs. Class sizes vary, but there are always those who want to learn. (Prison Education Project)

The University of Utah Prison Education Project, known as UPEP, is partnering with BYU to bring more education opportunities to BYU students and incarcerated students.

The Sorensen Center held a panel discussion in the Varsity Theater on Wednesday, March 6. BYU faculty volunteers, UPEP alum and UPEP staff reflected on their experience with education in prison.

Daycy Gomez, a former BYU student who worked as a TA in the prison during her time at BYU is now the educational coordinator for UPEP.

Gomez received internship credit for her time working in the prison and she hopes BYU students will take advantage of the learning and service opportunities this new partnership with the program is bringing to campus. 

“Education should be for everybody,” Gomez said. “It’s humanizing. It’s something that unifies us as human beings.”

Panelists shared their thoughts. From left to right Lia Olive, Daycy Gomez, Andy Eisen, and Chris Hodson. (Kaitlin Wride).

Chris Hodson, a faculty member in the history department at BYU, has been teaching with UPEP since 2021. He shared teaching at the prison is one of the highlights of his job.

“I’m not a believer in mass incarceration,” Hodson said. “Education on the inside is the best way to break down that system and to ensure a better mode of reintegration for incarcerated people.”

One of the things that makes incarcerated students unique is they have a commitment to learning for the sake of learning. The classroom can be a place where they feel respected and valued. 

“The fire is there, we’ve just got to tap it,” Hodson said. 

For Lia Olive, a current student at the University of Utah, that’s exactly what happened. After years of incarceration, she started taking classes with UPEP and now works as the re-entry coordinator.

Olive initially stuck with the program to impress her family, but started enjoying her microbiology class when it challenged her and she started to see a future beyond her incarceration. 

 “It was so much fun to learn because my mind had been starved for knowledge,” Olive said.

UPEP has also offered other experiences to incarcerated people such as art lessons, book clubs and even a special presentation on the eclipse sponsored by Clark Planetarium and NASA.

The mission statement of the University of Utah Prison Education Project is: “Through a commitment to social transformation, UPEP advances educational equity through on-site higher education, empirical research and advocacy.”

“If we aren’t really careful they just become words on the website,” Andy Eisen, the director of Prison Education at the University of Utah, said.

It’s important to expand our vision of who a student can be to include disenfranchised students like those who are incarcerated, Eisen said. 

“For me, higher education in prison allows us to improve our universities and allows us to live up to the mission of our universities,” Eisen said.

UPEP was started in 2018 and currently serves a men’s unit, a women’s unit and a mental health and geriatrics unit at the Utah State Correctional facility. This semester it started a degree-bearing program, where students incarcerated in the women’s unit can pursue a bachelor’s degree.

To learn more about the Utah Prison Education Project, visit their website here.

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