Michael Cargill Jr. is serving two life sentences plus 25 years for first-degree murder, first-degree robbery and kidnapping among other things.
His offenses weigh heavily on his shoulders as the sad reality that he will not see the other side of the walls of the Iowa State Penitentiary lingers in the 20-year-old man's mind.
Twenty-year-old Christopher Langley is in the same predicament - life in prison for first-degree murder.
With much of life's circumstances against them, the two, along with 15 other inmates decided to turn the tides of public opinion their way.
Within the walls of Iowa's oldest prison, they earned their GEDs.
"Being in prison is what made me do it," Cargill said, adding he plans on furthering his studies.
In two separate graduation ceremonies, 17 inmates recently received certificates in front of correctional staff, educators and family members, who were allowed to witness what most of inmates' mothers in attendance considered "a milestone" in their sons' lives.
"I love you mom, and this graduation is for you," said 26-year-old Charles Brewton Jr., looking at his mother, Mary Wilson, who had tears in her eyes, but a smile on her face. "She (his mother) is the reason I got my GED."
Brewton, who is serving a 37-year stint for robbery said he wants to further his studies when he gets out. He hopes to study real estate appraising.
"I'm very proud of him," Wilson said. "This is very emotional for me because I always taught him to value education, no matter where he's at and not be a quitter."
Brewton was one of eight inmates who received their certificates during the ceremony. Seven of the eight are either serving life or long sentences, and one is from the Critical Care Unit.
In the afternoon, a combination of inmates from John Bennett Unit and Farm No. 1 had their own ceremony.
Mary Moreno, whose 19-year-old son Juan Ochoa is serving 25 years for first-degree burglary, could not contain her emotions. Tears started flowing down her face the minute her son pointed toward her while he accepted his certificate.
"I am so happy to see him do it," Moreno said.
"I did it for her. As long as she's happy, I'm happy," Ochoa said as he embraced his mother.
Most of the inmates in the program finished the courses needed to get a GED in about six to seven months, running non-stop with homework and attending school for two hours each week. The program is a joint effort between the Department of Corrections and Southeastern Community College.
Families lingered in the moment, seeing their sons achieve something they never thought possible.
Savoring the day is one thing, leaving the facility with a heart longing for homecoming is another.
"What do I wish for after this, is for my son to come home," said Rebecca Reyes, mother of 25-year-old Carmelo Reyes, who was one of the graduates and is in for 30 years. "I miss him a lot and I want him back home with us to be with us and his 7-year-old son."
Southeastern Community College President Beverly Simone commended the graduates for their efforts and saluted the families for their support.
"Today, you really need to let it sink in," Simone told the graduates. "You know what you've achieved."
Simone spoke of making the most of everything in life and savoring every moment of it.