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.

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