Handcuffs and textbooks: A maximum security college degree

Oct 17, 2023, 6:08 PM | Updated: 7:30 pm

Image of several incarcerated women sitting outside in their prison jumpsuits and protective glasse...

(Hugo Rikard-Bell/KSL NewsRadio)

(Hugo Rikard-Bell/KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY — Through the dark lenses of the cardboard UV glasses, Marina Navarro stared at the sky.

“I can’t see anything! Maybe I’ll just stare directly at it.”

She was swiftly advised not to.

Yet, she still couldn’t see anything. She couldn’t see the eclipsing sun, she couldn’t see the snowcapped mountains that frame the Wasatch Front, she couldn’t see the 10-foot razor wire fence right in front of her, or the other one just past it.

For just a moment Marina couldn’t see she was in the yard of the Emerald block, the section of the Utah State Correctional Facility that houses maximum security female inmates.

Dressing for the occasion

There were 50 women sitting on plastic chairs, gossiping in the cold morning air waiting for the moon to pass in front of the sun, revealing the ‘ring of fire.’

They all did their hair and took time to put on makeup. You could hear the typical compliments you may hear around an office. “I love your lipstick,” or “your hair looks so nice.”

Despite wearing matching maroon jumpsuits with ‘UDC INMATE’ in block letters on their backs, they all looked very different.

Marina wore purple glitter eye shadow that matched her reading glasses. She had dark lipstick and her hair was done up in a ponytail.

“I can’t believe this is the second time I’ve seen it in prison,” she said as the eclipse started to become visible between the clouds.

“This time is different than the first time … UPEP is involved, and this would never have happened without UPEP.”

Prison education and the eclipse

UPEP, or the Utah Prison Education Project, is a program that offers credited courses to incarcerated people in subjects like history, art, and the sciences. It’s funded by government assistance and private donors.


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmates who participate in prison education programs have a 43% less chance of reoffending.

Dr. Andy Eisen, the director of Prison Education at the University of Utah, runs the UPEP.

“We’ve worked closely with NASA to give an opportunity for incarcerated folks, both here and at the central Utah prison, to view the eclipse. 700 glasses have been passed out throughout the two prisons,” he said.

He was busy setting up individual plates with a breakfast bagel, Sun Chips, and a Moon Pie. He explained there were also astronomers who were coming to talk to inmates about the eclipse.

“A beautiful event like this should be shared,” he continued.

“I think about the incarcerated women … they can then share [this experience] with loved ones, and have a common experience, which is really difficult when you’re incarcerated.”

Marina’s story

Marina is doing a long stretch. Thirteen years ago she was sentenced to 15 years to life for murder.

“I don’t see the board until another twelve years …  so I’ll be like 49 I believe …. somewhere around there.”

Her family is from Mexico and came to the United States illegally. She got here when she was two years old. 

“I was actually brought by a stranger to America in a bus,” she said.

Much of her early life was spent in Inglewood and Compton in Los Angeles.

Marina moved to Utah when she was 12 and was offered a full-ride scholarship to any college in Utah.

“I did very well in school, like high school, and then my brother got incarcerated and so, I started to not do so well anymore.”

When she graduated from high school, she was poised to be the first person in her family to go to college and decided to go to Weber State University.

It was a lonely existence for Marina those first couple of years and she struggled both academically and socially.

“I didn’t really relate to anybody in school,” she said.

“We were never supposed to talk about the fact that we were in this country illegally. So, a lot of the time nobody knew.”

She said at the time, she knew she wouldn’t make it through college.

“I had to answer to somebody about like, my progress and grades and I would lie about what I was doing, because I didn’t want to lose my scholarship.

“I went to visit my sister for a concert and the college called me … and I go ‘what am I doing?’ Like, you’re [I’m] not going to graduate.”

From the classroom to a cell block

When the judge swung his gavel and handed down his sentence to Marina, the phrase “sobering moment” didn’t cut it.

“This was not an environment I ever thought I would be in,” she said straight-faced, looking through the novel paper glasses at the eclipse.

“For months, I couldn’t sleep until like three in the morning … just thinking over every single detail of my previous life and how, like, I could have changed something, but I didn’t. You know?”

The first 10 years were hard, Marina said.

There was a cheer from the small crowd, the moon had just, mostly,1 covered the sun.

ring of fire eclipse

An annular solar eclipse is pictured in Torrey, Utah, on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. A phenomenon known as the “ring of fire” is visible because of the way the sun’s edges perfectly surround the moon. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

“There were times when I didn’t want to do anything, I would be in my nightwear all day,” she continued.

“The first class I actually went to wasn’t an actual credited class. It was to help people to graduate [with] their GED.”

A math professor from the University of Utah taught the class.

“I was like; ‘I’m good at math. I’m going to do this,” Marina said.

That first lesson re-sparked a love for learning Marina had forgotten about years ago.

Almost 10 years later she’s completing classes for her associate degree in anthropology from Salt Lake Community College.

“That’s who I always wanted to be, was an anthropologist,” she said.

She’s also studying history classes with UPEP. At the moment her favorite topic is the French Revolution.

“The subjects of France wanted to be free. They were broke. They have no money. And what happens when there’s no money? There’s chaos.”

A family motivation

Marina is close with her younger sister her son, who she had in prison. Her sister is also in college, and her son is still in school.

“When I started talking to my son, he told me; ‘I don’t want to go to college’, and I was like; ‘Oh my God, you’re breaking my heart,” she said.

Her son told her college just wasn’t for him and didn’t teach people everything.

“So I told him; ‘you know what, you are 100% right about that, but it teaches you things that you would never realize you didn’t know.”

He’s still in school, but the fact they are both studying and taking classes has created a bond between them.

“I tell him: ‘I love going to school’ and so then he’ll tell me how his classes were, and he’ll be more open about (the) subjects that he hates, or the subjects that he likes, you know?”

Inmates are students once they enter UPEP’s classroom

It’s no secret that in prison there are divisions between inmates.

Things like race, gang affiliation, and socioeconomic background can mean you don’t speak with certain people on the block.

Inmates leave all that at the door of the UPEP classroom, according to Marina.

“Whether we get along outside the class doesn’t matter in class, we respect each other. You find common ground and you realize it’s not just education where you find common ground, but that education opened the door.”

Marina has a long stretch of time to serve, but if she continues to participate in UPEP she will still likely be the first in her family to graduate with a college degree, provided her younger sister doesn’t pip her at the post.

“Thinking about the fact that I know I’m going to walk [for graduation], I think it’s going to be very surreal.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Crime, Police + Courts

Ian Azner and a dog pictured...

Garna Mejia and Mary Culbertson, KSL-TV

Family of Sandy man shot by police question the events before his death

Ian Anzer's family is waiting for answers from law enforcement and has requested to see the officer's body cam footage.

6 hours ago

A stabbing and arson domestic violence call happened early Saturday morning....

Derrick Jones

SLCPD responds to a domestic violence call that involved a stabbing and arson

A domestic violence-related incident involving a stabbing and arson that left two individuals injured and sent both to the hospital.

2 days ago

SLCPD police car...

Devin Oldroyd

SLCPD reports “dramatic” decrease in car theft and burglaries

The Salt Lake City Police Department said Friday that car burglaries and car thefts are down in the city compared to last year.

3 days ago

A person is dead after a shooting involving a U.S. Marshalls task force at a Sandy senior living co...

Devin Oldroyd

One dead after officer-involved shooting at Sandy senior living facility

A person is dead after a shooting involving a U.S. Marshalls task force at a Sandy senior living community Friday.

3 days ago

A green SUV on its roof in the front yard of a house after crashing into two parked cars and rollin...

Waverly Golden

SLCPD investigates rollover crash, gives reminder to practice safe driving

The SLCPD is reminding the community to practice safe driving after an SUV rolled over after crashing into to vehicles.

3 days ago

The Draper City Fire Battalion Chief's vehicle is parked outside Draper City Hall in Draper. a Carb...

Eric Cabrera

Carbon monoxide scare at Draper school

The American Preparatory Academy in Draper City had a carbon monoxide scare Wednesday. No one needed extensive treatment.

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

Human hand holding a protest banner stop vaping message over a crowded street background....

Prosperous Utah Communities

Utah’s Battle to Protect Youth from Vaping Epidemic Faces New Threat as Proposed Rule Threatens Progress

Utah's strict standards of nicotine levels in vaping products are at risk, increasing health hazards associated with use. Read more about how you can advocate for a better future for Utah's youth.

Aerial photo of Bear Lake shoreline with canopies and people camped out on the beach...

Visit Bear Lake

Last-Minute Summer Vacation Planning? Check Out Bear Lake!

Bear Lake is the perfect getaway if you are last-minute summer vacation planning. Enjoy activities with your whole family at this iconic lake.

Handcuffs and textbooks: A maximum security college degree