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Back to School

October 7, 2020

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

Students sitting at tables wearing facemasks while looking at a projector screen.

Dressed in face masks while sitting one pupil to a table, incarcerated students at Monroe Correctional Complex listen to a lecture in a classroom. (Susan Biller, Monroe Correctional Complex)

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For students attending school in 2020, the coronavirus put classes to a grinding halt this spring.

Those attending classes from behind bars already have to learn without access to many of the things regular students take for granted. There’s no internet. Limited class selections. No late-night university libraries. No dropping in to ask questions of instructors during on-campus office hours.

Throw in pandemic curveballs—like postponed or cancelled classes and no in-person communication with instructors— and getting a degree while incarcerated can seem impossible.

While the threat of COVID-19 remains on everyone’s minds, correctional education administrators have enacted a plan to allow classes to resume.

Department of Corrections reported at a press conference last month the number of active cases of COVID-19 within correctional facilities has dropped dramatically. As of October 2, there were only 28 active cases of COVID-19 statewide.

Correctional education classes resume with limitations

Most classes in correctional facilities resumed for modified in-person summer classes quarter July 1 so long as they follow a prescribed safety plan. The department’s corrections college programs safety plans follow standards set in the state’s higher education workforce plan, said Loretta Taylor, the department’s education services administrator.

New safety measures include reduced class sizes to accommodate social distancing guidelines and mandatory face covering requirements. The majority of classes are running on a hybrid-learning model.

This means students attend class part-time. The rest of the time, they use laptops with pre-loaded lessons and/or do assignments with pre-printed packets. Volunteer-run education programs, such as University Beyond Bars and the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, have also resumed, but with a drastic reduction in class options. And facilities are prepared to switch to an all-distance learning model in case of an uptick of COVID-19 cases or quarantines due to other illnesses like the flu. The added precautions have carried over into fall quarter, which began this September.

This is in addition to the safety measures the department already has in place to reduce risk of disease spread within correctional facilities. Besides mandatory face coverings and social distancing requirements, the department has instituted serial staff testing at its correctional facilities and increased the frequency of cleaning high-touch areas. The temporary suspension of visitations remains in effect.

Recognizing the transformative power of education

Taylor said the while the health and safety of incarcerated students is the top concern among faculty, prolonged suspension of educational programs during the pandemic can have a detrimental effect—leaving students feeling discouraged and isolated.

“The department continues to seek ways to bring secure technology to incarcerated students to allow them the opportunity to participate in education in a safe way,” Taylor said. “We know the transformative power of education, especially in a correctional facility setting. When the correctional facility population becomes even more isolated in situations like a pandemic, it’s even more important to find ways to bring quality education programs to students to keep them engaged, productive, and moving toward positive change.”

Despite having to adjust to a new learning environment, students are ready to return to the classroom.

“Being in prison, things are constantly changing and you have to adapt,” said 28-year-old Corey Young.

Young is working on an associate of technical arts degree in business management at Monroe Correctional Complex. Monroe has a correctional education program run through a partnership with Edmonds College. He says he’s not going to let the pandemic or his criminal background stop him from getting a degree and starting his own business.

Dedication to educational success keeps students going

“My dedication to my educational success keeps me going,” Young said. “The prior quarter we were in remote instruction and didn’t have the opportunity to come to class. Without interaction with the faculty and other students, much of the content had to be self-taught. Being back in class allows for that instruction and for students to learn from one another and ask questions about what you don’t understand."

Besides the degree in business management, Edmonds College offers other correctional education options which include adult basic education courses and certificates in web development, small business entrepreneurship and construction trades apprenticeship preparedness.

Approximately 3.9% of incarcerated individuals in Washington correctional facilities are serving life without parole sentences, according to the most recent data (pdf) available. This means the majority of incarcerated individuals will eventually finish their sentences and return to their communities.

Edmonds College Associate Dean of Corrections Education Kristen Morgan says education can play a vital role in helping people transition back to society successfully.

“The value of education transcends prison walls,” Morgan said. “Education programs improve self-esteem and give a sense of accomplishment and purpose to our students as they prepare to reenter our communities.”

Impact of Education

Many incarcerated students like Young end up getting convicted of a crime before they complete high school.

Approximately 29% of people residing in a federal prison did not have a high school diploma or general equivalency degree upon entering incarceration, according to 2018 First Step Act data, the most recent year available. The First Step Act requires the Bureau of Justice Statistics (pdf) through its National Prisoner Statistics Program to collect data on inmate characteristics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

By comparison, approximately 36.9% of incarcerated individuals in Washington state correctional facilities did not have a high school diploma or GED when they entered incarceration at the end of the calendar year 2018.

A 2013 RAND Corporation report found that incarcerated individuals who participate in educational programs while in incarceration were 43 percent less likely to recidivate—or commit future crimes that would return them to incarceration.

Melissa McKay, business management instructor at Edmonds College, says she enjoys seeing incarcerated students in her classes transform.

“The best part of my job is having the privilege to engage minds that are ripe for learning, to watch students realize that they can achieve, and to see them blossom with that realization,” McKay said.

Feeling a sense of purpose

Young says he’s going to be an example of that.

By the time he was 20, he was convicted of burglary, robbery and kidnapping and unlawful gun possession.

He didn’t know it then, but incarceration opened the door to his education and the drive to change his life for the better.

Since Young became incarcerated in 2012, he completed his GED and enrolled in college courses. His dream is to own and run a men’s clothing store after his earned release date in 2030.

He knows he can’t undo the crimes he committed, and he’s determined to redeem himself with the tools education has given him.

“Education is my path to positive growth and change, wanting to be a better person and do better in life,” Young said. “I know education lowers recidivism rates and my goal is never to come back to prison again. My degree will give me more opportunity when I get out. I feel a sense of purpose in my life now that I didn’t before. I’ve learned that I am smart and capable and can be the person I was supposed to be.”

Note: The Department of Corrections has requested $3.3 million in funding in the 2021-23 budget to fully implement the secure internet plan described in the 2SSB 5433 feasibility report (pdf), which would expand secure internet access to 10 additional correctional facilities, provide additional laptops to enhance educational opportunities available and fund specialist staffing to address the needs of incarcerated individuals with learning disabilities.