Finding freedom behind bars

October 24, 2018  By The Buccaneer
By Sarah R Baker

Originally posted at:

The patterned linoleum tiles, the overhead lights toeing the line between bright and harsh, and the cork boards covered in colorful construction paper and cut-out animals are reminiscent of anyone’s elementary school. The nostalgic smell of finger-paint and gooey cafeteria lunches feel like they might waft in at any second. The courtyard gives off a similar feeling, displaying perfectly trimmed grass and sporadic clusters of flowers and greenery any kid would want to trample or pick for favorite teachers during recess.

But this isn’t a school. It’s a prison.

Clallam Bay Corrections Center is far from the luxury of a grade school classroom once you exit the lobby. However, the value for education and equipping students with better skills to participate as functioning members of society is just as important to the prison education program.

This promotion of instruction and learning comes from real data around the world. The Research and Development (RAND) Corporation’s 2016 study found that offenders who participate in educational courses are 43 percent less likely to reoffend following their release.

“It’s a cost-effective way to reduce crime and leads to long-term benefits across the US,” stated RAND.

Offenders also have an easier time integrating back into society due to their higher likelihood to find jobs and housing promptly after their release, as opposed to offenders who didn’t participate in any kind of educational coursework.

In the years since Peninsula College (PC) started the first prison-based Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (IBEST) program, students at Clallam Bay have not only participated in higher education during their time incarcerated, they’ve begun exploring other interests and asking for requirements to complete degrees and certificates.

Kimonti, 39, the president of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus (BPC), spoke about the TEACH program. “It was created by the BPC to fill a void that existed here.”

Kimonti explained that undocumented students and students with a sentence of seven years or more take a back seat to “priority” students, who typically get “first dibs” on educational opportunities.

“Education is a right, not a privilege,” said Kimonti, “TEACH was created by people like us, for people like us.”

The TEACH program offers more college courses, like Sociology 101, Intro to Mass Media and Environmental Science. As students get closer to attaining their associate degrees, they request lab classes through TEACH. Kimonti and additional students and faculty are working hard to bring these classes to Clallam Bay and make degrees happen for all students, regardless of priotity status.

Despite living day-to-day in a corrections center, paying for crimes and mistakes alike, hope and ambition still thrive strong in many students.

“I was going to go to Washington State University. I had a full ride through a football scholarship, but I lost all of that when I was 18,” said Richmond, 23, who is focusing on college-level business courses. He’s been corresponding with an advisor at Skagit Valley College, who told him they “considered his situation” and will make sure all of his credits transfer over after his release – a rarity, even for students outside correction centers.

“Eventually, I want to start my own business as a personal trainer, working with young athletes,” said Richmond.

“This is my third time being incarcerated. The second time, I got my GED. Now I’m focusing on college classes. I want to gain skills to be a better person,” said Daniel, 29. “I have four kids going through school right now, and I really want to sharpen up so I can answer a question if they have one.”

Daniel is already utilizing the information in his business classes to plan a future career, “I want to do something that won’t go away or die out, like maybe a funeral home. It’s sad to say, but people are always dying.”

D’Marcus, 34, a computer tech TA, is reflected upon by Clallam Bay’s Education Director Sandy Dimmel as being a very valuable “computer guru.” He wants to work in computer programming, and whether that’s networking or databasing, D’Marcus has found his calling and it’s something he never expected.

“College classes and computers aren’t my background. I didn’t know anything when I started my first class. I didn’t even know how to go through a folder,” said D’Marcus, “now I’m a TA and I’m 20 credits away from finishing my associate degree.”

Students are aware of how much these classes are helping them, so are instructors, and even US presidents.

Brian Walsh, who previously lead the offender education program at PC, started IBEST. His work with this program named him a “Champion of Change” by the Obama Administration, and even lead him to meet the 44th president in 2013.

Walsh believes adult education provides a solution to lower crime rates and supplies offenders with more personal benefits, such as equipping them with tools to better care for themselves and their families.

The recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) rates alone are enough to prove this true, as corroborated by RAND.

“Knowledge is power,” said Les Scott, an instructor, “without knowledge, you’re useless. We’re giving these guys power, we’re helping them and helping the world.”

Kevin, another instructor, agrees. “It creates less victims. The recidivism rates say it all. If a student participates in just one educational course, it drops to 50 percent. If they get a degree, it drops to five.”

Education is also helping students gain confidence by utilizing academic skills to maneuver through other aspects of life.

Michael, 36, has been attending college through the corrections center for about a year and hopes to get into the welding program at Olympic College following his release.

“English 102 is really helping me with my writing style. When I write letters home, they notice the difference,” said Michael.

“I like the math classes. I haven’t taken very many classes yet, but so far that’s what I’m best at,” said Steven, 37, who plans to take business and entrepreneurship classes at PC after his release.

Students are reaching a level of personal and social fulfillment they might not be able to accomplish otherwise in such an environment. They’re also accessing opportunities for higher education they may have never considered if these programs weren’t offered at Clallam Bay. Lastly, they’re doing their part to reduce crime rates across the country. The prison education program and its faculty have made this possible.

“Don’t be afraid to try,” said D’Marcus, “These classes have been a huge support to me and have helped me further my tech skills. Don’t stray away from something because it’s not your background. I’m so glad I didn’t.”