OGDEN — For former Utah State Prison inmate Chris Hughes, learning to weld was the key to moving out of the criminal justice system. The program through which he earned his certificate is expanding to open up the opportunity to youth in the state’s incarcerated population.

For over 10 years, Davis Technical College has connected those held at the Utah State Prison to educational programs and career opportunities, helping them break out of crime. Juvenile Justice Services and the Ogden School District have partnered with the school to extend classes to Mill Creek Youth Center in Ogden.

“It’s going to be revolving door, revolving door, but I’m changed and I can prove to you guys that this can help you,” Hughes said, addressing some of the residents at the facility.

Mill Creek 08

Former Utah State Prison inmate Chris Hughes speaks about his experience as a graduate of Davis Technical College's manufacturing technology program at Mill Creek Youth Center in Ogden on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

After becoming involved with gangs and drugs as a kid, Hughes said he spent 22 years in and out of prison. During his last stay, though, he decided he wanted to turn things around.

“It can change your life for you,” he said. “Right now I’m making really good money, I run the maintenance crew and welding crew in the business I’m in, I’m getting ready to buy a house. It’s things that I never, ever thought.”

This kind of change is typical of the inmates who enroll in DTC’s programs, according to Darin Brush, the president and CEO of the school.

A 2016 study by global policy think tank RAND Corporation found that “inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43% lower chance of recidivating than those who did not.” And in his experience working with the population at the state prison, Brush said that number tracks.

“We know that at Davis Tech we’ve seen that, because we have for the last decade been a technical education partner at Point of the Mountain in Draper with both female and male inmates, and we’ve seen similar statistics, so we believe in the power of technical education and education in general as a great equalizer,” he said at a press conference.

The school launched its manufacturing technology program at Mill Creek Youth Center in December. That program was ideal, Brush said, because it is only 400 hours and “has a bit of everything” — computer automation, welding and composites — making it more likely students will graduate and have a job upon leaving the center.

So far, a couple of residents at the facility are nearing completion of their certificates, according to Mill Creek Youth Center Director Darce Afuvai. Of the approximately 30 inmates currently staying there, Afuvai said eight ranging from ages 16 to 25 are enrolled.

“The incentive is for them to better themselves, to help their family, to help the community, ultimately to help all those things,” he said. “It’s a win-win and obviously takes buy-in on their part for this to work. They have to be committed to the program, but the kids that we see coming in here, they want to be in here. Nobody is forced to come in here ... they’re applying for it.”

Mill Creek 07

Jordan, a Mill Creek Youth Center resident who is enrolled in Davis Technology College's manufacturing technology program, demonstrates what he is learning inside a workshop at the facility on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

One of the students who is further along in the program, Jason, hopes to get a job in welding when he leaves Mill Creek. “It’s cool the way that this thing is the strongest metal now that it’s fused together,” he said after demonstrating his newfound talent for the occupation.

Jason said he was excited to sign up for the program because it gives him a way to stay busy after he is released from the facility and avoid getting in trouble again. Another student who just started computer automation classes on Monday, Jordan, said he got involved for a similar reason.

“I felt like it would give me better opportunities when I leave here, better education,” he said.

The students’ computer automation instructor, Jasper Thayn, said he has seen the inmates’ outlook change as they progress toward a certificate and realize they can have a viable, well-paying career. From him, the students learn a number of skills that start with wiring and eventually work toward programming robotic arms.

Certificates earned by residents at Mill Creek are accredited in the same way those awarded to manufacturing technology students at DTC’s Kaysville campus are. And the expertise students are gaining has led multiple companies to partner with the facility in hiring graduates immediately upon release, Afuvai said.

“They are employable when they leave here and not after they leave here, which has always been the challenge with transitioning,” the director said. “Sometimes, when there’s a lapse in what they’re doing after they’re released (from) here, we can lose them in that time frame. Here, they’re hitting the ground running. They have that certificate in hand.”

In the past, long-term youth confinement facilities like Mill Creek Youth Center have focused on ensuring residents complete a high school diploma or GED prior to being released. After a change in state law last year that extended the time a serious juvenile offender can remain in such facilities to 25 years of age, DTC Corrections Program Manager Dan Powers said all parties felt an increased urgency to provide higher education options for incarcerated youth.

“The juvenile justice system recognized the need to not just put people back out ... at 25 years old that only have a high school diploma, so they moved this direction with the career and technical education,” he said.

Both Powers and Afuvai have a vision of the program growing as it moves forward.

Powers said DTC is working with Farmington Bay Youth Center, where female inmates are housed, to transport students to the classes at Mill Creek. He also hopes to establish additional programs at Farmington Bay while expanding offerings at Mill Creek, as well as strengthen job placement connections.

“This is just the ground level,” said Afuvai, who is on the same page. Furthermore, he is looking to increase the number of youth who have access to and are enrolled in the certificate program.

“When you have these wraparound services, that’s what these kids need,” Afuvai said. “They need anchors in the community. They need the support as they leave the facility.”

Contact reporter Emily Anderson at eanderson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyreanderson.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!