New law helps inmates earn workforce-type college degrees

OLYMPIA — Taxpayers have long funded programs enabling inmates to get a diploma or learn skills needed to land a job when they get out of prison.

Now, some of those tax dollars will be spent helping them earn a college degree while still behind bars.

A new law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee authorizes community and technical colleges to provide instruction in certain associate degree programs through a contract with the state Department of Corrections.

Once the law takes effect July 23, Edmonds Community College will look to expand its slate of offerings at the Monroe Correctional Complex to include courses for an Associate of Technical Arts degree in business management. Classes could begin as early as the start of winter quarter in January.

“It is a very big step,” said Kristyn Whisman, dean of corrections education for the college. “The trend in research shows the further along the college pathway a person gets before they leave a facility, the more successful they will be when released.

“As much opportunity that we can provide, the better ultimately for the community,” she said.

There’s a trove of research on how inmates who improve their education and job skills while locked up are less likely to re-offend compared to those who do not.

“Recognizing that there is a positive correlation between education opportunities and reduced recidivism, it is the intent of the legislature to offer appropriate associate degree opportunities to inmates designed to prepare the inmate to enter the workforce,” lawmakers wrote into the law.

In Washington, the Department of Corrections and the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges have a long partnership to conduct classes in basic education skills — to help inmates earn a general education development certificate, or GED — as well as vocational education.

Between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, community colleges served 8,960 men and women incarcerated in the state’s 12 adult prisons, according to a January report compiled by the state board. Thirteen community colleges participated, including Edmonds, under a $16.8 million contract between the corrections department and state board.

This school year, Edmonds CC is providing instruction to an average of 420 people a day at the Monroe Correctional Complex. Its offerings include adult basic education skills, a certificate in entrepreneurship and small-business management and a certificate in building maintenance technology. Courses in other building trades, such as carpentry, have been provided in past years.

State law has long limited use of public funds for corrections education to vocational and basic skills courses. Inmates can earn an associate of arts or a bachelor’s degree through private organizations, such as University Behind Bars which offers such opportunities at the Monroe facility.

However, a proviso in the last state budget did allow a limited number of postsecondary degree programs for the two-year fiscal cycle. The state partnered with the Seattle Foundation and the Sunshine Lady Foundation and it resulted in the awarding of 47 degrees by Walla Walla Community College at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center and Washington State Penitentiary.

The new law, Senate Bill 5069, clears the way for state funds to be used for associate degree education. It passed by votes of 46-0 in the Senate and 78-20 in the House.

Brian Walsh, a policy associate for the state board’s Correction Education program, said community colleges plan on extending existing one-year vocational programs in automotive, information technology, trades and welding into degrees.

“The net impact will be that students who have the time to get a degree will be able to get a vocational degree and those who don’t will earn one-year certificates,” he said in an email. “This is important since SBCTC data show that the one-year certificate with a meaningful industry certification is the tipping point for helping people get out of poverty.”

He also noted the new law limits the type of associate degrees to workforce degrees. In other words, taxpayers won’t be paying to provide degrees in liberal arts.

And the Department of Corrections and community colleges have to do all this within existing resources.

“There is no additional funding so the cost of this is that we will serve fewer students —but we will serve them better,” Walsh said.

To be eligible, an inmate must be within five years of release and not already have a postsecondary degree. Those sentenced to death or sentenced to life without the possibility of parole are ineligible to participate in a state-funded associate degree education program. They are not barred from taking part in a privately funded and operated effort.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

Talk to us

More in Local News

A wanted suspect was arrested after a standoff with law enforcement Tuesday night. (Bothell Police Department)
Kidnapping suspect arrested after standoff in Bothell

A large police presence contained the property in the 20500 block of 32nd Dr. SE on Tuesday night.

Community Transit's Lynnwood microtransit pilot project is set to launch this fall with a service area around the Alderwood mall. (Community Transit)
Lynnwood’s microtransit test begins this fall, others possible

Community Transit could launch other on-demand services in Arlington, Darrington and Lake Stevens.

Doctor Thomas Robey sits in a courtyard at Providence Regional Medical Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
‘It’d be a miracle’: Providence tests new treatment for meth addiction

Monoclonal antibodies could lead to the first drug designed to fight meth addiction. Everett was chosen due to its high meth use.

Rev. Barbara Raspberry, dressed in her go-to officiating garments, sits in the indoor chapel at her home, the Purple Wedding Chapel, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Everett, Washington. The space used to be two bedrooms, but she and her husband Don took down a wall converted them into a room for wedding ceremonies the day after their youngest son moved out over 20 years ago. The room can seat about 20 for in-person ceremonies, plus it serves as a changing room for brides and is the setting for virtual weddings that Raspberry officiates between brides and their incarcerated fiancees at the Monroe Correctional Complex. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Everett’s oh-so-colorful Purple Wedding Chapel is in the red

Rev. Rasberry has hitched hundreds of couples over the years. After her husband died, she’s unsure if she can keep the place.

Man dies in motorcycle crash that snarled I-5 in Everett

Washington State Patrol: he tried to speed by another driver but lost control and hit the shoulder barrier.

The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way, which Snohomish County is set to purchase and convert into emergency housing, is seen Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
County OKs hotel-shelter purchases, won’t require drug treatment

Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring efforts failed to delay the vote and failed to require residents to get addiction treatment.

In a nearly empty maternity wing, Chief Administrative Officer Renée Jensen talks about how it has been almost nine years since east-county mothers could give birth at EvergreenHealth Monroe on Monday, April 1, 2019 in Monroe, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
EvergreenHealth Monroe seeks Community Advisors to guide services

Applications for the volunteer positions are due by Sept. 16.

1 dead in fire at Arlington RV park

Authorities believe the fatal fire early Wednesday was an accident.

Patrick Diller, head of community partnerships for Pallet, discusses the Pallet Shelter Pilot Project last June in Everett. (Katie Hayes / Herald file) June 29, 2021
State laws prompt changes in Everett city rules for shelters

The city is considering revisions to issue permits more quickly for emergency shelters.

Most Read