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DRAPER — In high school gyms and auditoriums, seniors all over the country have collected their diplomas and celebrated the future. But the students that graduated Wednesday in Draper are what you'd call non-traditional — and "future" is something that isn't a given.
The class of 2013 at the Utah State Prison paraded beneath barbed wire under the watch of a SWAT team.
"It's probably one of the best days of my life so far," said inmate and graduate Brittany Haynes. Matthew Thompson: I feel actually pretty blessed today-
Matthew Thompson, 34, finally graduated from high school.
"I actually feel pretty blessed today," Matthew Thompson said.
Matthew Thomspson's parents, Jim and Kathleen Thompson, were there to support their son and say they were proud and excited.
"I actually feel pretty blessed today." Matthew Thompson, high school graduate and inmate
"It's a pretty big accomplishment to graduate from high school," Jim Thompson said.
At the prison, a high school diploma is not the norm.
"Most offenders come in here with very low literacy skills," Craig Burr, Offender Success Initiative programming director, said. "Most of the guys are the ones who are out in the parking lot in a regular day of high school, drop out of school ."
Matthew Thompson says he was one to leave school a lot.
"He went he just didn't go," Jim Thompson said with a laugh.
Life after school did not go well for Matthew Thompson.
"What got me here was a retail theft charge and a criminal mischief charge," he said.
Haynes landed in jail for a different reason.
"What got me in here was addiction," Haynes said.
Inmate and graduate Isabell Martinez says she was inspired to finish high school so she could get a career and support her kids.
"Emotionally, I didn't feel I could do anything positive when I stepped through those gates," Martinez said. "Being separated from my three amazing children was very hard to deal with."
Matthew Thompson says he got his diploma to give some direction to his life.
"Just something I really needed to get accomplished in my life I've been kinda drifting here and there," he said.
Those who have a high school diploma, and also complete our substance abuse programs or sex abuse programs, have a better chance of succeeding, just like in real life the more education a person has the better chance they have at succeeding.
Jim Thompson says his son finally had the motivation to finish school.
"I don't know whether it's maturity, rather a light just clicked in his head and he says, 'I can't do this anymore, I'm 34 years old, I have nothing,'" Jim Thompson said.
Research shows a diploma should lower the chances inmates will come back once they leave. A recent study in Indiana showed high school education lowering the recidivism rate for some inmates by 7 percent. Some college education lowers the recidivism rate by much more. However, a Utah legislative audit last year noted a lack of information about whether Utah inmate graduates get jobs.
"Those who have a high school diploma, and also complete our substance abuse programs or sex abuse programs, have a better chance of succeeding, just like in real life the more education a person has the better chance they have at succeeding," Burr said.
The overall odds for inmates are not good — more than half end up back behind bars in less than three years.
But Matthew Thompson hopes this will improve his chances.
"(I) put ‘em through a lot so hopefully I can stop putting them through so much and actually do something with my life here," Matthew Thompson said.
His mother says she was happy to see him graduate.
"I'm really proud of him," Kathleen Thompson said. "He's gonna make it now, he's gonna move on."