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College Education Disrupted for Washington Prisoners

by Kevin W. Bliss

At the same time the federal government is once again opening Pell Grants to prisoners, some have been left scrambling in Washington by closure of the State Reformatory (WSR) – which hosted the state’s primary college program behind bars.

The Second Chance Pell grant program will expand to prisons nationwide later this year, from a pilot program begun in 2015. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.44.] WSR was one of those pilot sites, offering a college degree to some 50 prisoners enrolled there by the University Behind Bars (UBB), a nonprofit outreach of Seattle Central College. Then the state Department of Corrections (DOC) shuttered the prison in October 2021, citing a reduced population and the costs of maintaining its vintage 1910 structure – throwing a monkey wrench into their plans.

Of the 50 prisoners enrolled in UBB, 38 were within a quarter of receiving their degree when WSR closed. But as of December 2022, only two had been able to finish their degrees, using correspondence classes.

Meanwhile, DOC prisoners at Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CC) and Washington CC still have access to college courses hosted by Centralia Community College. Walla Walla Community College hosts another program at Coyote Ridge CC. However, an associate’s degree is the highest they offer.

UBB offered prisoners courses that could lead to a degree; however, the non-profit is not accredited to grant degrees of its own. That may mean its students no longer qualify for Pell funding, so UBB is revamping its program to focus on providing re-entry support, said its operations and community resource manager, Kelly Johnson.

Combined with the closure of WSR, the situation reveals a stark truth: The continuity needed to complete a college degree is simply not guaranteed to prisoners. Few prisons host college courses. Few people admitted to them stay long enough to complete course work – if the college program survives, that is. Moreover, prison officials’ paranoia about security risks limits the courses offered – forget about studying computer programming – and keeps those that are approved from prisoners in special management or those with long sentences.

That leaves most prisoners dependent on self-study with correspondence courses, unless there is a program where instructors come into the prison to teach. Not surprisingly, the most commonly offered degrees are in religious studies from non-accredited Christian colleges. [See: PLN, July 2022, p.50.] But credits in those degrees do not transfer to other colleges. And if a prisoner moves to another prison, the opportunity to complete the curriculum may not follow.

Studies show prisoners provided education are 28% less likely to recidivate. An analysis by the federal Government Accountability Office also found the total aid afforded prisoners through Second Chance Pell Grants in no way affected the amount utilized by those not incarcerated. It remains to be seen what other opportunities expansion of the grants will open to prisoners in Washington and elsewhere.

Source: Seattle Times

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