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Education Policy

Washington Prisoners Get Chance to Pursue 2-Year Degrees

A 2009 study found that prisoners who participated in prison-based college courses were less likely to do something that would send them back to prison during the first year after release. Now Washington state has signed into law a measure to expand existing partnerships and create new ones between the Department of Corrections and community and technical colleges. The goal: to offer state-funded associate's degree and certificate instruction to some of the 18,000 adults in Washington prisons.

Substitute Senate Bill 5069, which goes into effect this July, expands pathways that previously limited postsecondary education to one-year vocational certificates and privately funded academic degree programs. The legislation cited Rand research that found that adults who received such education while incarcerated were 43 percent less likely to recidivate and that adults who participated in such education while in prison were 13 percent more likely to be employed. A 2013 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that the state received a return on investment of $20 for every dollar invested in correctional education.

The new law doesn't come with additional funding. The Department of Corrections is expected to tap its own budget, which already covers various educational and vocational programs for inmates. Nor does it apply to individuals who are on death row or serving life without the possibility of parole or those who already have a four-year degree.

Along with the expanded educational offerings, the colleges involved in the program have been working with vendors to develop a secured laptop that can be used in living units to extend the amount of time students in prison can study. The laptop, as specified, would have a secure operating system, a clear bottom to expose the battery and no WiFi or network port.

The state isn't a stranger to training prisoners. During the 2015-2016 academic year, Washington community and technical colleges served 8,960 people in prison, about 3,413 full-time equivalent students. They also issued 1,709 vocational certificates. In addition, in the state school board funded pilot reentry programs on the main campuses of numerous colleges, including Edmonds Community College, Renton Technical College and Tacoma Community College.

Edmonds, as an example, will expand the number of courses it provides to the Monroe Correctional Complex, possibly starting in the winter quarter. That will include business management courses leading to an associate degree in technical arts. According to coverage in the Everett Herald Net, the college is currently delivering instruction to an average of 420 people at the Monroe facility, including adult basic education skills, a certificate in entrepreneurship and small-business management and a certificate in building maintenance technology. In the past the institution has offered courses in other building trades, such as carpentry.

Tacoma Community College as well as Centralia College and Seattle Central College are also participating in a federal "financial aid experiment" that lets colleges award financial aid to incarcerated adults in postsecondary programs. This three-year project began in fall 2016.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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