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Inmates learn on their own time

Clark College programs inside Larch Corrections Center aim to teach them vital job skills

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published: June 7, 2015, 12:00am
6 Photos
Clark College instructor Bruce Music, left, teaches offenders about changing belts in an automotive repair class at Larch Corrections Center.
Clark College instructor Bruce Music, left, teaches offenders about changing belts in an automotive repair class at Larch Corrections Center. Photo Gallery

Prison Education: How It Works

In Washington, adult offenders who are sentenced to at least a year and a day in custody are placed under supervision of the state Department of Corrections. More than 16,000 inmates are housed at the state’s 12 prisons. Adding those housed in county jails and other state facilities, the number of adult prisoners surpasses 18,000.

Since 2002, the Department of Corrections has contracted with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to provide educational services to offenders. The board subcontracts with community colleges, including Clark College, to operate these programs. The programs offered include basic education for adults, vocational skills training, job search preparation, and stress and anger management.

With a capacity of 480 offenders, Larch Corrections Center in Clark County is among the state’s smaller prison facilities. The offenders at Larch have been convicted of a wide range of crimes, including murder, rape and robbery, but have four years or fewer left to serve on their sentences.

Many Larch offenders work days for the Department of Natural Resources planting trees, fighting wildfires, or picking up litter. Those offenders can enroll in the evening business class.

— Susan Parrish

Washington’s prison population by the numbers

• 16,683 people incarcerated in Washington prisons.

• 92.5 percent male; 7.5 percent female.

• 71.7 percent white; 18.1 percent black; 4.6 percent American Indian/Alaska Native; 3.7 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.

• 38.2 average age.

• 57 percent of all male offenders score below the ninth-grade level in basic literacy skills.

• 71 percent of all female offenders score below the ninth-grade level in basic literacy skills.

• 60 percent of all offenders were unemployed before they were incarcerated.

• 75 percent of all offenders lack job skills and vocational training.

Source: Washington Department of Corrections

About Clark College programs at Larch Corrections Center

Cost:

• 2013-2014: $284,050.

• Funding: State, not federal funds.

• Private grants pay for associate degrees and college-level academic programs.

Programs:

• Adult education: Adult basic education, high school equivalency and computer basics.

• Vocational skills: Automotive services and small-business management.

• Life skills: Job search and stress and anger management.

Certificates issued 2013-2014:

• Automotive services: 51.

• Small-business management: 23.

• High school equivalency certificates: 32.

To Learn More:

Learn about educational programs available at state prisons at

http://www.sbctc.ctc.edu/college/abe/FY14_Annual_Report_Final.pdf

YACOLT — When Bruce Music opened the hood of a gray sedan in the auto shop, students wearing khaki pants and shirts gathered around and peered under the hood. Music, a Clark College automotive instructor, talked about the significance of the serpentine belt.

“Remember, if the belt fails, everything fails,” he told his automotive services students. “When you get out, you can Google the belt-routing information,” he said.

But these men are not out. They are in. Solidly in.

They are incarcerated at Larch Corrections Center, a minimum-security prison in the remote, wooded eastern edge of Clark County, about 10 miles north of downtown Camas.

Some clues suggest this is not an ordinary college auto shop. Tools are secured with heavy-duty padlocks. Outside the shop, high concrete walls topped with barbed concertina wire remind the students that they are prisoners.

But sometime in the next four years, they’ll be free men. That’s why they are among the offenders across the state enrolled in the Community Colleges Correctional Education Program. The educational programs at Larch Corrections Center are run by Clark College. Just like the classes at Clark College’s main campus, the courses at the prison run 10 weeks. Classes focus on preparing inmates to be successful when they are released, to find jobs, and to stay out of prison.

Washington spent $15.4 million on education programs in its 12 adult prisons in 2013-2014, including $284,050 at Larch Corrections Center. Most of the money comes from the state government. No federal money is used. Any associate’s degree programs are paid for by private grants.

Kevin Wasava, 26, a student in Music’s class, pushed the button to hoist the sedan above his head so he could change the oil.

Unlike many of his fellow inmates, Wasava graduated from high school, but attaining that milestone didn’t keep him out of trouble. At 22, he was arrested for selling drugs.

“Right out of high school, I hung around the wrong peers. That negative energy is real strong,” Wasava said. “If you hang around with 10 bums, you’re going to be the 11th bum.”

He still has two years of his sentence remaining.

Wasava enrolled in the Automotive Services program “so I have options and won’t be stuck working at a fast-food spot,” he said. “It’s a good foundation for people who have been incarcerated. It’s something to lean on. Life is hard.”

Stereotypes, misconceptions

The public has stereotypical misconceptions about prisoners, said Rhianna Johnson, education director for Clark College at Larch Corrections Center. In television and movies, inmates often are depicted as incorrigible, mentally ill or drug addicts, she said.

“The impression is that these are all violent, unintelligent, bad people, but that’s not the case,” Johnson said. “If you talk to them and hear their life stories and their histories, you find they are very intelligent and capable.”

One of the most essential goals of the educational programs is to equip offenders with tools to keep them from re-offending and ending up back in prison. This does not boil down to simply finding and keeping a good job. It also means learning to make better choices and to consider the consequences of their actions before they act.

“We’re impacting the way they think about things, the way they understand the world,” Johnson said.

A prisoner told Johnson that participating in the educational programs had changed his way of thinking.

“He told me he had become more of a critical thinker. That he had learned to question things and consider things instead of just going along with his peers,” Johnson said. “To me, that’s your golden moment as an educator.”

Back to basics

In the state’s prison system, 57 percent of all male offenders score below the ninth-grade level in basic literacy skills. Those prisoners can take adult basic education courses that focus on reading comprehension, writing and math skills.

“Folks who come into prison, in general, have a lower education level than the general public,” said Michael Paris, administrator for offender education with the Department of Corrections. “We spend quite a bit of money and time to help offenders who dropped out of school and didn’t get a basic education.”

Paris said that effort seems to be working. Washington’s prison system has been named the nation’s top-producing corrections education program for high-school equivalency attainment.

Jacob Wright dropped out of high school and didn’t collect his diploma. Later he was convicted of robbery and sent to prison.

Now 29, Wright is one of 19 offenders who will receive their GED certificates at Clark College’s June 19 graduation at the prison. Other offenders will receive their automotive or business certificates.

Under the guidance of Clark College instructor Steve Smith, Wright passed all four GED tests: language arts, science, social studies and math.

“Jake’s story is not at all uncommon,” said Smith, who noted that between five to eight Larch inmates per quarter earn a GED certificate.

“If students really focus and are dedicated, they can earn their GED in a quarter or a quarter and a half,” he said. “I am very proud of Jake’s accomplishment. He will be able to walk at graduation and have all the privileges and happiness that comes with that accomplishment.”

When he’s released later this year, Wright says he plans to live with his sister in Federal Way. Completing his high-school equivalency has motivated Wright.

Prison Education: How It Works

In Washington, adult offenders who are sentenced to at least a year and a day in custody are placed under supervision of the state Department of Corrections. More than 16,000 inmates are housed at the state's 12 prisons. Adding those housed in county jails and other state facilities, the number of adult prisoners surpasses 18,000.

Since 2002, the Department of Corrections has contracted with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to provide educational services to offenders. The board subcontracts with community colleges, including Clark College, to operate these programs. The programs offered include basic education for adults, vocational skills training, job search preparation, and stress and anger management.

With a capacity of 480 offenders, Larch Corrections Center in Clark County is among the state's smaller prison facilities. The offenders at Larch have been convicted of a wide range of crimes, including murder, rape and robbery, but have four years or fewer left to serve on their sentences.

Many Larch offenders work days for the Department of Natural Resources planting trees, fighting wildfires, or picking up litter. Those offenders can enroll in the evening business class.

— Susan Parrish

“I plan to go to college when I get out,” he said.

“Teaching at Larch is one of the best experiences I’ve had as an educator,” said Smith, a retired public school teacher. “It’s extremely rewarding to see people who didn’t believe they could accomplish much to realize that they not only are capable, but to use that to go on to bigger and better things.”

He recalls many success stories. After one of Smith’s students was released from prison, he attended an aviation program at Renton Technical College to learn carbon fiber composite technology and later was hired by Boeing.

Prisoners come to class with a wide range of educational experience, said Doug Helmer, Clark’s small-business instructor at Larch.

“Some guys were incarcerated at 18 and have never worked. Others haven’t had access to technology and don’t even know how to move the (computer) mouse,” Helmer said. “But others have owned businesses.”

Under Helmer’s instruction, offenders can earn 22 college credits and receive a certificate of achievement in business management.

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One of the offenders who is earning a certificate is Michael Meriwether, who was arrested on charges of organized crime, money laundering and racketeering. On a recent day Meriwether, 30, sat at a computer in the prison’s business classroom. He was creating an inventory spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. He also was writing a business plan for a business he hopes to start after he’s released from prison in two years.

On the Clark College campus in Vancouver, Helmer has run into former Larch Corrections students who continued their education after they were released from prison.

For security reasons, offenders do not have Internet access. Almost all job applications are accessed online, so offenders can’t apply for jobs online until they’re released from prison. But Johnson, the education director, works with the prisoners to practice writing résumés and filling out job applications.

Market demands

Prisons have adapted their vocational courses to the changing job market. The Department of Corrections closed its offset printing program at the Monroe Correctional Complex after the statewide committee determined that digital printing technology rendered the program obsolete.

“We try to ensure that the programs we offer lead to employment for ex-felons,” said Paris. “We look at the labor market and change our vocational programs periodically.”

Washington's prison population by the numbers

• 16,683 people incarcerated in Washington prisons.

• 92.5 percent male; 7.5 percent female.

• 71.7 percent white; 18.1 percent black; 4.6 percent American Indian/Alaska Native; 3.7 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.

• 38.2 average age.

• 57 percent of all male offenders score below the ninth-grade level in basic literacy skills.

• 71 percent of all female offenders score below the ninth-grade level in basic literacy skills.

• 60 percent of all offenders were unemployed before they were incarcerated.

• 75 percent of all offenders lack job skills and vocational training.

Source: Washington Department of Corrections

About Clark College programs at Larch Corrections Center

Cost:

• 2013-2014: $284,050.

• Funding: State, not federal funds.

• Private grants pay for associate degrees and college-level academic programs.

Programs:

• Adult education: Adult basic education, high school equivalency and computer basics.

• Vocational skills: Automotive services and small-business management.

• Life skills: Job search and stress and anger management.

Certificates issued 2013-2014:

• Automotive services: 51.

• Small-business management: 23.

• High school equivalency certificates: 32.

To Learn More:

Learn about educational programs available at state prisons at: http://www.sbctc.ctc.edu/college/abe/FY14_Annual_Report_Final.pdf

A new aerospace composites program is in its second year at Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane. The hands-on program develops fiberglass fabrication and other skills for entry-level employment in the burgeoning composites field.

A technical design program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center teaches offenders how to use computer-aided design to draw products. Next they can learn computer numeric control to fabricate the products they design. The prison has a furniture factory run by offenders. When an offender is released, he can have earned a college certificate in technical design and computer numerical control routing.

Previously, prisoners could attain associate of arts degrees that were paid by federal Pell grants, Paris said. But in the mid-1990s, legislation was passed that prohibited the Department of Corrections from providing academic programs unless they are funded by private donors. One private donor that has stepped in to pay for academic programs in some Washington prisons is the Sunshine Lady Foundation, run by Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire Warren Buffett.

Recidivism rates

Prisoners who participate in education programs while incarcerated are more likely to get a job after they are released and less likely to return to prison, according to a study by the research group RAND Corp.

Statewide, about one in three offenders ends up re-offending within three years of release from prison. But those who were enrolled in educational programs while in prison were 43 percent less likely to return.

Paris said the prison system’s adult basic education program offers a high return on investment. For every dollar the state spends, the return on investment is $20. That is realized through less crime and fewer social services dollars spent. For vocational education, the return on investment is $13 for every dollar the state spends, Paris said, referring to the RAND study.

Education is an effective tool for behavioral management in a prison, said Paris.

“Going to school is a privilege. Offenders who go to school are much better behaved,” Paris said. “It gives offenders something to do, but it does way more than that. It changes their behavior. A lot of students who come into prison, this may be their first time to stop and think: ‘This is my chance to do something different. Be something different.’ “

Instructor Smith summed up the opportunity that education can offer ex-offenders: “It’s my core belief that your felony does not have to define you as a person or what your future might look like. So often, people who are incarcerated don’t see themselves as having much of a future. But with some work, some education and a desire to move beyond your felony, the world can open up to you. That’s the reason I’m here.”

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