DRAPER — For most of his life, Jody Emery has lacked direction.

At 15, he set himself — and his parent's house — on fire while high on methamphetamine. At 16, he impregnated his girlfriend and dropped out of high school. At 26, he got high, fell asleep in a Dee's parking lot and woke up face to face with his first felony drug conviction. He got out of prison at 27, went back to drugs at 28 and ended up back in court two weeks later.

These days, though, his life is pretty predictable.

He spends his mornings at school. He spends his afternoons doing genealogy. He spends his evening curled up with a science fiction novel.

"Not much else to do in prison," he says with a shrug. "I just study."

In three weeks, Emery, 30, will leave the Utah State Prison with a high school diploma and certifications from Davis Applied Technology College in business technology, automotive technology and Machine Tool Technology.

Like most state agencies, the Department of Corrections has had to trim its budget significantly in the past few years. Officials have implemented a hiring freeze, laid employees off and reduced salaries. Their education budget, though, theyve guarded jealously. This year promises to be no different. If the legislature goes through with proposed cuts, the Utah State Prison will likely shut down a cell block, which means laying off 168 employees and releasing 850 inmates into the community, rather than putting education on the chopping block.

"It's sort of a sacred cow," said Craig Burr, division director of programming.

The Department of Corrections, though, only holds sway over money spent on secondary pursuits like college and vocational school. Its high school program, which serves 6700 inmates statewide, is funded directly by the legislature. The legislature — like the general public — doesn't hold inmate schooling in such high esteem. That program has sustained significant hits in the past few years.

"When they want to cut money it's like we have a neon sign on our forehead," said Jeffrey Galli, corrections education specialist. "Nobody stands up and says, 'Don't be taking money away from serial rapists and pedophiles.'"

In the end, though, "people are people," he said.

Aside from the white scrubs stamped with the words "UDC INMATE," Emery, a convicted drug dealer, looks like any other Davis Applied Technology student. In a warehouse that smells like motor oil, he's one of several prisoners — all dressed in scrubs, most sporting neon orange beanies, some heavily tattooed — seated in wooden desks. In one hand he holds a pencil, that he tap, tap, taps against the worksheet he is filling out. He uses the other hand, twisted and scarred from his childhood mistakes, to shuffle through his textbook. He's trying to figure out the power needed to cut different types of metal, he said, knitting his brows together.

"Time in prison is time you can never get back," he said. He's frank, friendly and quick to smile. "That's why I study so hard. I want to make the best of the bad decisions I've made."

Research indicates that offering high school, college and vocational training in prisons reduces crime. Seventy-five percent of state prison inmates nationwide are high school dropouts. Inmates who take classes during incarceration are less likely to go back to prison within the first three years of release, according to a 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Education. Eighty percent of those who do return to jail were unemployed at the time of their crime. Arming convicts with job skills, Galli said, gives them a leg-up.

"This is the best way we know how to stop the revolving door," Galli said. "Education is absolutely vital to rehabilitation."

Teaching inmates reading, writing and quantitative reasoning also helps them better understand therapies that are vital to their rehabilitation.

"The inmates with better literacy levels have more success in treatment for drug or sex addiction," Burr said.

The Department of Corrections takes the research so seriously that, in 2007, officials changed the mission statement to emphasise "providing maximum opportunities for offenders to make lasting changes through ... education." Now 35 percent of the Utah State Prison's 6,806 inmates are enrolled in some type of schooling. High graduation rates have steadily climbed from just over 200 in 2006 to 550 in 2010. After earning their high school diploma, inmates can choose from a variety of certificates from Davis Applied Technology College including auto mechanics, culinary arts and office technology.

"You don't go to prison for punishment; you go to prison as punishment," Galli said. "There's an expectation that while you're there, you're working to make sure you'll be a better person when you're released."

Matern has been working with prisoners for 11 months. She's been working for Davis Applied Technology College for years.

Some things about teaching at the prison are different than teaching at college. The cars the automotive students work on have been disabled. There's a warden wandering around, checking up on people. Sometimes inmates get frustrated, start talking back and have to be escorted out.

"We always have to be cognizant of security here," Matern said.

Other things are exactly the same. The prisoners are required to take the same courses as traditional students. That means they study, not just applied technology, but also things like work place relations and communications. When they get out of prison, Matern said, they can pick up where they left off at the school's regular campus in Kaysville.

"Our advisory committees tell us repeatedly: employers are looking for hard workers who put in a full day's work for a full day's pay," Matern said. "We stress things like honesty and punctuality with all of our students."

The Utah State Prison releases about 3200 criminals on parole each year, Galli said. Reentry into the community is difficult. Two-thirds of all parolees end up back in prison, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Repeat offenders make up 35 percent of state prison populations.

"That offender is going to come out with a resume in one hand and a rap sheet in another," he said. "It's tough."

Emery is nervous to return to real life.

"Being in prison is easy," he said. "They bring you food. You don't have to do anything. Out there you have make your own way."

This time, though, he insists, "I'm doing it right. I'm not coming back."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com