Locked out of life-saving education programs
Front facing, on their letterhead and websites, the Washington State Department of Corrections and legislature verbalize what they believe the voting public wants to read and hear. However, behind closed doors, in caucus, in action, in reality, they are locking prisoners out of educational programming, out of options, out of hope.
The American public believes incarcerated individuals are able to turn their lives around if they just try hard enough; if they stop making bad decisions and instead choose to participate in programs such as education and job training while imprisoned, then they can successfully reenter their communities. It’s not that simple.
Many Americans rely on the comfort of this belief because it relieves them and their elected leaders of responsibility in reforming the current system. However, these painfully naive assumptions rooted in American values of meritocracy and individualism need a huge reality check. These ideals place the sole responsibility for rehabilitation on the incarcerated individuals and are dependent on the notion that they have a choice to participate in programming.
In our most recent monthly radio show with Mike McCormick on KODX 96.9 FM Seattle, we discussed the significant percentage of the prison population for whom there is no choice and no opportunity. At best, these individuals remain in a period of educational-limbo, sitting on waitlists behind thousands of others qualified for the overwhelmingly limited opportunities. At worst—as is the case for multiple students with whom we work to fight this—they are barred from programming due to policy barriers that restrict individuals who have more than a certain number of years left on their sentence from programming, including education. Both of these groups are composed of worthy, driven, capable people who involuntarily sit idle in their cells, devoid of any opportunity to learn, grow, or rehabilitate.
We discussed on the radio show that the prison population can be divided into two groups: people who can make it on their own after their release if they’re willing to work hard at it, and people who cannot make it on their own without direct intervention. A primary factor dictating this division is the individual’s social class, as well as whether they suffer from serious mental health issues and/or addiction. Most often, the people who the Department of Corrections (DOC) lock out of programming fall into the latter category—those who depend on it for a chance to overcome higher risks of recidivism.
This doesn’t consider issues such as quality of the educational programming, or the variety of opportunities. We are talking about people who have no opportunities whatsoever to participate in programming. One of our students who illustrates this is barred from programming due to an official release date in 2033, despite recent changes in legislation making him eligible for resentencing. Though this will likely move his release date up within the threshold to participate in programming, he is indefinitely waiting in line with thousands of other prisoners qualified for resentencing after the recent Court and legislative changes. During his incarceration, he has taken advantage of every single educational opportunity made available to him before opportunities disappeared. After earning his GED, he earned credits spanning from Financial Literacy to Waste Water Management; if there was a seat open, he never passed it up. He has dreams for his future to pursue a career in counseling for domestic and substance abuse. There is a Human Services degree program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center where he is currently incarcerated. However, due to his current release date, he is not even being considered.
Decades of research prove the economic benefits of investing in correctional education and expanding opportunities. One of the largest research studies of correctional education efficacy to date conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2013 reported that every $1 invested in correctional education programs results in a $4-5 return on investment. This is due to how significant the direct impact is on the number of people they do not have to re-incarcerate: Recent estimates show that participation in correctional education programs can reduce one’s likelihood of returning to prison by up to 50%—an overwhelming statistic when considering it costs approximately $34,000 per year to incarcerate an individual in Washington State.
The major barrier to programming we discussed was the remaining time left in one’s sentence, which is defined in the most recent iteration of House Bill 1044. As Ari Kohn puts it, “if you have more than four years left on your sentence, it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to get into classes.”
In Student Services at the Post-Prison Education Program, on a daily basis we encounter this and infinitely more barriers created by the DOC. Some students are over-punished for infractions received in the past by being banned from programming for a year or more. PPEP employee and program graduate, Adrian Tunney, discussed a student who she is working with who was on track to complete and earn his certificate from an educational program, until the last class he needed was postponed to after his release date with no notice. Another PPEP employee, Ari Rose-Marquez, recently worked with an incarcerated student to complete his FAFSA and go through the college application process in anticipation of his release date last month. As of today, the man is still incarcerated—past his release date—due to bureaucratic issues with no end in sight and is unable to participate in programming while he waits to be released.
During our radio show, we also highlighted a case in which we contacted DOC-HQ on behalf of a student with whom we work, Douglas Allam, who is serving a life sentence, thus currently barred from programming. His story illustrates one of the most infuriating contradictions in place in current DOC policy: Douglas is locked out of programming, yet if he has the chance to go before the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, he likely will have no chance of being approved for release due to the fact that he has not participated in programming. Ari Kohn explained this as, “If these people want to have a chance of having a free life, and building a life worth living, and being responsible in the future, they have to program, but the exact same state that requires them to program prevents them from doing so.”
We talked with Ari about the Post-Prison Education Program’s initial meeting with the Washington State Department of Corrections (Thursday, January 12, 2006). According to Ari, Harold Clarke, then Secretary, Eldon Vail, then Deputy Secretary, Prisons Division, and Michael J. Paris, Educational Services Administrator, were in attendance. Mike Paris seemed to be proud of the pathetic fact the Department had budgeted $15.2-million for educational programming in its 2006 budget. Nothing has changed, except recidivism and morbidity following release have continued to increase with the DOC’s failure rate now at 30.7%.
Recently, from DOC-HQ, we received an email defending their policy to lock prisoners out of educational programming. We responded with, “Locking prisoners out of programs is the best way your staff can think of to protect Washington State taxpayers’ resources??? It should be obvious even to the Jeannie Darneilles and Roger Goodmans of the world that the unequivocally clear and best way to protect taxpayers resources is to do everything under the sun to have them program—maybe then, the DOC’s unjustifiable, inexcusable rates of recidivism and re-admission (over 50% times too numerous to count since August 2012) will finally, at long last, begin to decrease.”
The Post-Prison Education Program will continue to fight for the right of our incarcerated applicants and students to participate in lifesaving programming. Disgusted by the reasoning behind the refusal to consider Douglas Allam for any opportunities, which included the fact that there are 156 “eligible” incarcerated individuals on a waitlist to participate (in just one small prison facility), we have retained a law firm to file Public Records Act requests to uncover how many prisoners, potential students, total, are currently stranded on similar waitlists throughout Washington State, simultaneously blocked by the legislature and Department of Corrections from doing what society requires of them—build lives worth living, become contributing members of a “civil society” (which seemingly does not exist).
Emma Hogan, Ph.D. Candidate; Research and Policy, Applicant and Student Services
Hannah Bolotin, Director of Development and Policy
1 Davis, Lois M., et al. "Education and vocational training in prisons reduces recidivism, improves job outlook." Rand Corporation (2013)
2 Oakford, Patrick, et al. "Investing in futures: Economic and fiscal benefits of postsecondary education in prison." (2019)
Taxman, F., Pattavina, A., & Caudy, M. (2014). Justice Reinvestment in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of the Potential Impact of Increased Correctional Programming on Recidivism. Victims & Offenders. 9. 50-75. 10.1080/15564886.2013.860934.