Jan Walker, Guest Columnist: On the Inside

Guest Column Archive

Prison Education Saves Money

Jan Walker
Our state Legislature is considering a bill (SB 5069) to provide associate degree education to offenders inside our adult prisons.
The bill is based on studies that demonstrate such education dramatically reduces recidivism rates, saving taxpayer dollars. It will also improve public safety by decreasing criminal activity. Mass incarceration nationwide is estimated to cost $80 billion taxpayer dollars per year. The studies cited by our Legislature include a 2013 Rand Corp. report that found every dollar spent on education inside prisons saved $5 in recidivism costs. A 2014 Washington state public policy study estimated a $20 return for every dollar invested in correctional education. I taught adult offenders for 18 years inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Purdy and McNeil Island Corrections Center. Over half had committed nonviolent drug use and abuse crimes. The rest included those who had murdered, raped, assaulted and pillaged. No matter their crime, I met them as students and treated them as such. I strongly support this legislation. During my tenure, I developed curriculum for continuing education courses, several of which let eligible students earn college transfer credits. Those courses helped offender-students learn to think critically about subject matter and to re-examine the behaviors that led to incarceration. In the process, they also reached out to their families to rebuild bonds and help their children cope with the reality of the parent’s incarceration. Our students came from diverse backgrounds, often with only the conviction of criminal behavior in common with their classmates. Even those students who initially groaned at the requirement to complete written assignments soon found they had opinions and ideas they wanted to express and defend. They read textbooks and supplemental materials provided by the education program, thought and answered assigned questions about their reading and then discussed it with other students. They used analysis and reasoning to form their opinions and support them in discussions even while they were still struggling to define the term “critical thinking.” Their achievements in coursework segued to rethinking their life experiences and choices as part of the natural progression of education. When I transferred from teaching at Tacoma Community College to help set up a college-based program at WCCW, I knew nothing about the prison culture. My initial assignment was to establish a program that included parenting, child development and family courses that would help students when they left prison. Most of the women were mothers who complained that their old family-relationships text was written for ninth-graders, and the parenting book assigned tasks to do with their children after class. Neither worked for them. I began writing curriculum to fit their needs. My first two published books were a family relationships text and a parenting book designed specifically for them. Both became the basis for credited college transfer elective courses that were as popular with dads at McNeil Island as with moms at the women’s prison. The core concepts focused on earning rights as a parent and member of society by accepting responsibilities for your choices and for your roles in the lives of others. It required students to learn about emotional, financial and legal responsibilities to their children and family members. It included a chapter on reuniting with children and family—information critically important to successful re-entry. Ninety-five percent of all offenders return to society. Required programs include education, vocational training and work assignments. Those offenders who qualify for courses leading to an associate degree will gain skills that make them more employable and better prepared to reunite with their families. Please support our Legislature in adopting the act that will provide associate degree courses to qualifying offenders in our adult prisons.
Jan Walker taught offenders inside Washington Corrections Center for Women and McNeil Island Corrections Center for 18 years and volunteered in a re-entry preparation program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women after retiring. She is the author of 10 books including “Unlocking Minds in Lockup: Prison Education Opens Doors.” She lives in Gig Harbor.