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Legislators consider expanding access to higher education in Washington correctional facilities

January 29, 2020

By Janelle Guthrie

DOC Communications

Men in prison garb writing on blackboard

Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) students conjugate Spanish verbs at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. (Photo Courtesy of Skiff Mountain Films)

OLYMPIA – Incarcerated individuals may soon have more opportunities to complete college degrees while in correctional facilities.

Among other things, House Bill 2299 (pdf) would permit Washington State Department of Corrections to implement post-secondary certificate and degree programs at state correctional institutions. It would modify the department’s educational goals for incarcerated persons to include special education services and post-secondary education certificates or degrees. It would also require the department to consider educational programming when considering transfers to other facilities and when releasing a person to their county of origin, among other things.

The House College & Workforce Development Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill at 1:30 p.m. today.

The agency contracts with the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges to offer Adult Basic Education (pdf), workforce pre-apprenticeships and certificates, and associate technical degrees at each of the 12 correctional facilities. It also provides privately funded degree programs offered by the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS) and University Beyond Bars.

Under current law, individuals may participate in other provided vocational, work or educational programs that are not required to comply with a reentry plan, including associate degree programs, but they are required to pay all or a portion of the cost, including books, fees and tuition, unless a third party pays it for them.

The Department provides these education and work programs to incarcerated individuals at no cost to help them meet the following educational goals as authorized by law:

  • Achieve basic skills through a high school diploma or equivalent;
  • Achieve vocational skills necessary for work programs and to qualify for work upon release;
  • Complete additional work and education programs necessary to comply with their reentry plans.

Research has shown that education can have an impact on recidivism rates. Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not, according to a 2014 study by the RAND Corporation.

Support for the Bill

Corrections’ Education Services Administrator Loretta Taylor testified on the bill. While Taylor expressed concern about ensuring colleges had the resources to accommodate more students, she shared the department’s support for providing post-secondary educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals.

“We know that providing post-secondary education opportunities reduces the risk of recidivism, provides greater employment opportunities and also keeps our prisons safer both for staff and incarcerated individuals,” Taylor said in her testimony.

College Behind Bars demonstrates success

As legislators consider expanding access to higher education in Washington’s correctional facilities, several Corrections staff members, including Taylor, joined educators, community members, family and local leaders at a special screening of PBS’ four-part program, College Behind Bars, at KBTC studios.

College Behind Bars is a four-part documentary film series, directed by award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein and executive produced by Ken Burns. The series follows a small group of incarcerated men and women working their way towards college degrees in one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in America – the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI).

Filmed in maximum and medium security prisons in New York State, the four-hour film addresses the need to “provide meaningful rehabilitation for the over two million Americans living behind bars.” According to BPI’s web site, 97.5 percent of its graduates leave prison and never go back.

After the screening, Northwest Now’s Tom Layson moderated a panel of education and reentry specialists and formerly incarcerated students who spoke about their experiences with access to higher education in the correctional facilities, including:

“It was life-changing to have the expectations and the same curriculum as everyone else,” said one of former FEPPS students who asked not to be identified in this story. “It helped me recognize I’m not the actions I did; I’m a student.”

According to its website, “FEPPS offers seven classroom-based college and pre-college courses per quarter at the Washington Corrections Center for Women and provides students the opportunity to earn an Associate of Arts degree. Students may also attend three weekly study halls, a monthly lecture series, student workshops, teacher trainings, and a library maintained by FEPPS at the prison.”

Professors with an M.A. or Ph.D. from top schools in the state, including the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma Community College, Pacific Lutheran University, the Evergreen State College, and the University of Washington, teach all the classes.