Education is the best way to fight prison recidivism, but correctional departments are failing incarcerated people and society

  • Education is the most powerful tool in reducing the chances an incarcerated individual will recidivate upon release.
  • Washington Department of Corrections claims to work toward reducing recidivism.
  • The educational opportunities offered in Washington state prisons are sub-par and can be difficult to access for some.
  • Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

People who participate in educational programming while incarcerated are 43% less likely to return to prison, which makes education the undisputed king of recidivism-reducing tools. Yet here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) in Washington state, of the courses offered, very few have been known to create pathways to employment, and access to them can be elusive.

The Washington Department of Corrections’ literature claims that its mission is, “to improve public safety by positively changing lives.” Though an ambiguous statement, its context implies that the goal is to reduce crime by rehabilitating those they house before releasing them back into society. Considering 68% of people who get out of prison end up returning, the logical plan of action — assuming the Department of  Corrections (DOC) remains true to its mission statement — would be to employ the most effective tool, and emphasize a model that not only makes valuable education available to the entire population, but incentivizes incarcerated individuals to enroll in classes.

Educational assets

Having developed a resume in freelance journalism, I recently decided to spend the last two years of a 12 year sentence earning a degree that would allow me to pursue journalism school upon release, so I inquired of the education department about my options. The response came within days, and I learned that MCC, in collaboration with Edmonds Community College, offers a 1-year certificate in Computer Information Systems and a two-year Associates of Technical Arts degree in Business Management (ATA). As technical courses, neither provide transferable credits.

Still, I asked my wife to research both degrees. Neither are listed as requirements for employment anywhere she could find. We had floated the idea of creating a publishing company somewhere down the line, so I requested a meeting with MCC’s Dean of education to ascertain whether or not the ATA might at least teach me skills that would be applicable to such a venture.

The Dean promptly scheduled an appointment with me, and when the day arrived, I filled a legal folder with my published novels, magazine and newspaper articles I’ve written, and a copy of my résumé. I felt that, in order to get a useful answer, it was important for her to understand that my plans were more than just the pipe dreams of someone whose perspective has been warped by years in prison. I prepared my questions in advance, and speed-walked to the education building to find it dark, locked up, and empty.

Upon returning to my living unit, I received a message that she had sent at the last minute, stating she would have to reschedule. Then, the next week, it happened again. And again, after that. This pattern continued for months, until I finally requested, she just move forward and enroll me in the ATA Business course. It seemed like a major life decision to have to make uninformed, but what choice did I have? She responded that she would get back to me because the class might be too full.

Over the course of a few more electronic exchanges, I asked how people on her waiting-list were being prioritized and reminded her of how long I had been actively seeking to be advised on a college pathway. She ended up eventually enrolling me, and agreed, again, to sit down with me in order to finally answer my questions. I start class next week (Spring Quarter) and have still not been able to get a meeting with anyone resembling an academic advisor, or anybody from MCC’s education department, for that matter.

These hurdles can be even more pronounced for others. Until recently, the Department of Corrections considered prisoners with immigration detainers to be a low priority, even for basic education classes which American prisoners are required to take. All courses in MCC were taught exclusively in English, and of little value to individuals being deported to certain countries upon release. 

Prior to COVID-restrictions shutting down all educational programming, the Latino Development Organization, a prisoner-led nonprofit, was collaborating with the Mexican Government to implement a basic education program that offers a certificate recognized in Mexico and hosting an array of bilingual classes.

The University Beyond Bars, another prisoner-led program, provided accredited AA and BA degrees in Liberal Arts. Even then, waiting lists were long, and DOC staff, a demographic composed mostly of White Republicans — at least in Washington — created masses of red tape around organizing classes, and aggressively banned teachings that didn’t conform to conservative ideology.

The issues around educational access here in MCC may stem from complacency — the lack of incentive to create pathways to success and remove obstacles from in front of potential students, or they could be financially charged — the result of non-accredited courses somehow allowing more funding to funnel into certain accounts. Either way, they’re arguably the most important and pressing issues affecting Washington state prisons.

According to data posted on the Washington DOC’s website’s section on Offender Demographic Characteristics by Release and Recidivism, of the 22 prisoners released every day in the Evergreen state, 6 return. In order to remain true to its mission, DOC, it seems, is in dire need of an educational advisory board, consisting of members of the incarcerated community, and taxpayers alike, and centered around re-imaging its education department in prisons like MCC, which is failing. Until then, it will be clear that reducing recidivism isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.

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