Corrections education proves to be smart investment

by Joe Small

For the past 13 years I have worked in Corrections Education programs through Walla Walla Community College. WWCC contracts with the Department of Corrections to provide inmate education at the Washington State Penitentiary and Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.

Currently, 3,200 students take college coursework in 11 different programs at the Washington State Penitentiary or Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.

Washington state’s investment in corrections education translates into savings for taxpayers. The majority of educated and trained offenders successfully find jobs and don’t return to prison. The recidivism rate for former offenders in Washington state is 34 percent. The rate of recidivism for those who complete one year of postsecondary academic or vocational education drops to 15.6 percent.

The rate is 10 percent for those who complete two years of academic or vocational postsecondary education.

A 2006 study of over 200 offenders from the Washington State Penitentiary who completed Walla Walla Community College degrees or certificates between 1985 and 1997, found only 11 percent had reoffended. The same group was resampled in 2012 and only 12 percent had reoffended.

The Washington Institute for State and Public Policy has completed two recent studies showing for each dollar spent on corrections education, taxpayers save between $13 and $19 on reduced recidivism rates from this better educated population. This was one of the highest rates of return for programs studied by the WISPP.

Investment in corrections education work force training programs has helped offenders build confidence that enables them to compete for living-wage jobs upon release.

A 2013 study of 170 offenders from WSP who completed one year of vocational or work force training through Walla Walla Community College found 76 percent were working with hourly earnings ranging from $14 to $17.60 per hour.

The recidivism rate of this group was 5 percent, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections.

A two-year academic degree program leading to an Associate in Arts degree was re-established at the Washington State Penitentiary in 2008. A year later a degree program was established at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

These programs are funded by a grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, established by Doris Buffett. Since 2010, over 350 offenders have attended academic classes and approximately 186 offenders have earned AA degrees from WWCC.

Thirty six of those graduates have been released; 47 percent are continuing their education, with approximately half of them enrolled in four-year colleges in the state of Washington.

Of all offenders incarcerated in Washington state prisons, 97 percent will be released. When these former offenders return to their home communities, the big question is: Will they be prepared for the challenges they will face? Will they be among the now educated former offenders who return with living-wage job skills that are in high demand fields and become taxpayers who can take care of themselves and their families?

Or will they join the nearly 34 percent of offenders who reoffend and continue to cost all of us nearly $30,000 per year to incarcerate?

Support Corrections Education, it is a smart investment.

Joe Small, Ph.D., is dean of Corrections Education at Walla Walla Community College.