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Making it Click: How One Washington Prison is Preparing Women for STEM Careers

March 11, 2020

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

(Tim Kelly, DOC Communications)

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GIG HARBOR – Students in this computer coding class share ideas for mobile apps they are designing.

One of these designs is for a recyclable waste app that connects restaurants and businesses with excess product to a directory of food banks and after school programs. Another is a dating app.

However, this class is not at a fancy tech school. It is located inside Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW).

“This program is going to save my life,” said 37-year-old Christina Cratty, through tears. “It’s going to change my life because now I don’t have to go back to what I know and I can do something different.”

Cratty is one of ten women who recently graduated from the web development program at WCCW in December. When incarcerated students complete the course, they earn a certificate as well as college credit from Tacoma Community College (TCC). Women in the program have earned a total of 41 certificates since it began in 2017.

Cratty said the program is a beacon of hope for her to correct the mistakes she made in the past--A past in which she describes how involvement with drugs led to convictions for identity theft, forgery and possession of stolen property. After she gets out of prison next year, she wants to use her technical skills to support the work of non-profit organizations focused on ending homelessness.

“I want to get ideas like that off the ground at a non-profit,” Cratty said. “I want to help people who are really having trouble being productive in society. Being in information technology, I feel like I’ll be able to help the organizations that provide services to help the community.”

STEM Careers

Helping women enter the information technology and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is something WCCW hopes to do. Despite the fact that women make up half of the college-educated workforce, they are still underrepresented in STEM careers.

The National Girls Collaborative Project, a non-profit dedicated to encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers, listed computer and mathematical sciences as some of the fields with the most gender disparity. Women make up only about 26% of those employed in those particular fields.

“These (incarcerated) women are people who have been kind of forgotten by the rest of us,” said Benjamin Erkan, instructor for web development programs at WCCW. “The goal of the course is to get these women a valuable skill for when they reenter the workforce. Giving them this career possibility makes all the difference in the world.”

The web development program is an accredited one-year certificate program offered by TCC. It’s designed to mimic boot-camp style programs found in the industry. The curriculum focuses on “full stack” programming, which means students will learn basics of both front end (visible parts of a website or app) and back end (databases and infrastructure) web development. Students also have the opportunity to work with Unloop, a non-profit organization that offers workshops and mentoring inside the prison on weekends. Unloop also provides training programs for students post-release.

A unique and groundbreaking addition to the program is the integration of partial internet access. It’s part of a pilot program that began in September 2019, allowing students to complete projects on a secure network hosted on a local server that continually monitors and limits access to the internet. The intent is to allow students to use classroom computers to replicate how their coding would work on the web, while addressing security concerns.

“I do not think that any community would accept an institution of learning today – in the 21st century – that offered education devoid of technological resources,” said Dr. Sultana Shabazz, director of correctional education at TCC. “When we do not provide incarcerated students with access to the internet – in some form – we forego concerns about equity for a vulnerable population that needs these skills in order to be successful upon release.”

Web development is one of several classes at WCCW that offer education in STEM fields. TCC also offers computer-assisted drafting and Correctional Industries (pdf) offers Braille transcription courses.

Computer assisted drafting uses computer software to create two-and-three-dimensional models for objects like bridges, buildings and airplane parts. The technology is also useful for creating models of the human body, allowing doctors and researchers to make advancements in the medical field.

Women in the braille transcription course use a combination of software and mechanical equipment to translate documents into braille. Correctional Industries partners with the Ogden Resource Center at the to create braille pages for distribution to schools, government agencies and businesses all over the state.

Additionally, the prison offers a Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC) program in which incarcerated women get hands-on technical experience in carpentry, ironwork, construction and cement masonry. The TRAC program is also available to women at the Mission Creek Corrections Center in Belfair.

Besides giving incarcerated individuals a marketable skill, educational programming reduces recidivism. According to a 2014 RAND Corporation report, inmates who participated in some type of educational programming were 43% less likely to return to prison than those who did not.

A Brighter Future

Erkan says, by the time these women complete the computer programming course; they will have the skills they need to qualify for a web developer job at an entry level.

The US News & World Report, lists web developer as one of the most in-demand STEM careers in the US. It ranks at number 13 on a list of the top 30 STEM careers. It lists data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating more than 20,900 jobs in the field in will become available between 2018 and 2028, largely due to a rise in e-commerce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for web developers in 2018 was $69,430 per year.

That’s good news for women like Cratty. She can’t wait to jumpstart her new career. She is also looking forward to reuniting with her three children, ages 18, 9, and 5.

“Now I actually have a future that’s brighter than before,” Cratty said. “I was really depressed, but knowing that there’s possibly a light at the end of the tunnel and that there’s going to be a future for me. I feel so much more like I’m needed in society and can give back what I’ve taken. It drives me to be a better person all the time.”