This month, nineteen inmates at the “Washington Corrections Center For Women” received college degrees.
Nineteen inmates from the “Washington Corrections Center For Women” all wore royal blue “caps and gowns” in the center’s gymnasium as they received their college degrees in front of an audience of family and friends.
All the inmates were serving long-term sentences for crimes such as robbery and even attempted murder. Twelve of the graduates are expected to be released within the coming five years.
The keynote speaker was Cheryl Wilkins from the Center for Justice in Columbia University. She flew all the way from New York to give a speech at the graduaton. She said: “This is the largest women’s prison graduation I have ever seen, and I am so proud.” Wilkins too had served time in a prison in New York for assault and armed robbery. She earned a degree in prison and has now become an expert on “criminal-justice reform.”
She thanked those in charge of giving these women the opportunity for a college education, “who believe in second chances, who believe in higher education, even to a group that society has deemed as unfit, throwaways, unworthy.”
The Controversy of it
Many have argued against the concept of allowing felons to receive free higher education in prison and the right to get a college degree from it. Washington state has previously only allowed inmates to receive a high school degree, but recently passed legislation has extended that to vocational associate or business college degrees as well.
These particular women graduated with degrees in liberal arts, which is paid for by private groups who have a strong belief that offering inmates a college education would make them less likely to go back to criminal life after leaving prison.
According to a RAND Corp meta-analysis in 2013, prison education programs did indeed improve inmates’ chances of staying out of crime after their release. It also showed that it improved their shots at landing a job. However, the study wasn’t specific in what kind of education it was that had the largest effect- high school diplomas, vocational or bachelors.
There are currently 900 inmates at the prison, where only 80 are enrolled in the project, and 150 on the wait list. According to Tanya Erzen, the executive director of the Freedom Project, they are currently unable to provide an education for all of the inmates, due to limited classroom space and the fact that the prison is quite overcrowded.