Graduation ceremonies have been taking place all over the region, and this Saturday, 11 people incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women will receive Associate of Arts degrees.
This is the fourth graduation for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit organization that makes it possible for people at the prison to earn an associate degree accredited through Tacoma Community College.
Other higher education institutions are involved, too, including the University of Puget Sound, the University of Washington and Seattle Colleges.
Tanya Erzen is a professor of religion and gender and queer studies at UPS and the faculty director of the project.
“You see people in the day rooms studying and talking to each other and even talking to officers about what they’re doing in school as opposed to doing other things, and that changes the culture of the prison, as well, in a positive way,” Erzen said.
The program got started because a group of women inside the prison invited professors in 2011 to visit and discuss starting an education program, Erzen said. Including this weekend’s graduates, 45 people will have received associate degrees since the first graduating class in 2016, she said.
One woman continued her education at the University of Washington after being released and now has been admitted to law school, Erzen said. The son of another woman inside the corrections center was inspired to enroll in college and now the two of them compare notes on their studies.
“When they come for visiting, they’re always talking about, 'Did you get an A on your English paper? I got an A on my English paper,'” Erzen said.
Now the aim is to expand the initiative. The University of Puget Sound is working on establishing a bachelor's degree program at the prison. It would be one of just a few such programs for women in prison in the country, Erzen said. The four-year track still has to be approved by the university's board of trustees.