Gina Peterson is the first inmate at the Napa County jail to earn her high school diploma while still in custody.

A small celebration – complete with a short graduation procession – was organized in her honor inside the Napa County Department of Corrections on Friday.

“This time in jail turned out to be a blessing in disguise and I’m thankful for it,” Peterson said.

Peterson, 33, had almost completed her junior year when she dropped out of Vallejo’s now-closed Hogan High School.

“I come from a family where not many people have graduated.” Instead, Peterson said, many of them are in prison.

Peterson entered the jail in January after being sentenced to two years for what she called “bad choices.” She didn’t disclose the exact crime, but, according to records, they were nonviolent.

The first program that became available to her was the literacy program offered in partnership with the Napa County Library. In meetings with her tutor, Dan Martin, Peterson would often talk about how much she wanted to get her diploma.

In July, she was able to start working toward that goal with programming offered by Napa Valley Adult Education. Peterson had weekly homework and had to complete a senior project.

“They would just push me every week — ‘do your homework, do your homework,’” she said. “I felt like I was back in high school.”

In less than six months, the mother of two had earned enough credits to graduate.

“I’ve never had to do this much time,” she said. “A whole year away from my kids has been traumatizing. It’s been very hard, so I’m glad I turned this negative into something positive.”

Peterson expects to be out of jail within the next few weeks, in time to spend Christmas with her family. She hopes to continue her education with the goal of becoming a veterinarian technician. In the meantime, she said, she’s going to look into volunteering with the Napa County Animal Shelter.

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“I’m so proud of her,” said Kim Wildman with Napa Valley Adult Education. Wildman brought Peterson homework at least once a week and acted as a liaison between the school and jail staff.

The adult education program has been trying to bring their programming back to inmates since they lost their classroom at the jail in 2014 when the South Napa Earthquake hit, Wildman said. As of last week, the program had six students working toward earning their high school diplomas or preparing for the GED.

“The students are just really motivated,” she said.

“For us to be able to do this completely in custody is pretty exciting,” said Lt. Chris Wilson, correctional officer with NCDC. In the past, she said, inmates could work toward their degrees or study for the GRE, but wouldn’t be able to complete the process until they were out of jail. Thanks to better technology and the fact that programming is again becoming available to inmates, Wilson said that more inmates will be able to follow in Peterson’s footsteps.

“You are really a trailblazer,” Napa County Deputy DA Holly Quate told Peterson. “Now you can be a role model in the community.”

With her family in attendance, Peterson will walk in Napa Valley Adult Education’s formal graduation ceremony at Memorial Stadium in June.

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Public Safety Reporter

Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She covers breaking news as well as crime and courts. Maria came to the Napa Valley Register in 2015 after working at as a reporter and photographer at The Daily News in Jacksonville, NC. S