Felicia Dixon is 33 years old and has been incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women since 2004.
That’s a long time to not be able to use the internet. Washington prevents people in prison from using the web because of security concerns. Dixon entered prison before social media really took off.
“There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, none of that, prior to me coming here. I’ve never texted,” Dixon said. “So it’s a very different world I’m going into, and not only that, I’m going into the tech world on top of it.”
Dixon is one of 10 women who graduated on Dec. 10 from a web development certificate program run by Tacoma Community College at the women’s prison. She said she has an internship lined up with a tech company in Seattle for when she gets out on work release in a few months.
This graduating class has a unique distinction – they’re the first group at any prison in the state to be allowed to use what's called “secure internet.” That means they were permitted to use a limited number of websites related to coding.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill giving the go-ahead for the secure internet pilot program. Democratic state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, who represents Tacoma, was one of the co-sponsors. She said allowing some web access will help achieve the goal of preparing people for life after incarceration.
“The only way we’re going to assure ourselves as a society that people are going to succeed after they leave is if they have some sort of skillset when they leave that they didn’t have when they came in,” Darneille said.
And yet, there are some big reasons why the state Department of Corrections has blocked internet access for people inside prisons.
“The biggest fear and concern is always being able to get out into the internet and contact victims,” said Loretta Taylor, education administrator for the Department of Corrections. Another concern, she said, is that people inside of corrections facilities could try to run an online criminal enterprise.
But Taylor said it’s become increasingly hard to provide education opportunities to people inside prisons without any internet access. Testing for the GED and some workforce certificates has moved online, she said.
And the concern among educators is that people completing courses of study in prison will not be sufficiently prepared for the workforce, especially for the kinds of well-paying jobs in the technology industry.
Sultana Shabazz is director of corrections education for Tacoma Community College, which runs classes at the women’s prison in Gig Harbor and also at the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women.
“We work very hard to make sure they’re getting equitable education in here,” Shabazz said. “At the end of the day, without internet access, you can only take it so far.”
TCC has found some workarounds so the women could design web pages and write computer code offline, but Shabazz said it's not easy.
“We’ve been doing it for three years without internet access, which just involves a lot of work on the part of instructors to bring in things that actually work to teach those skillsets,” Shabazz said.
CELEBRATING A MILESTONE
At the graduation ceremony, the mood inside the visitation room was joyful. The women wore blue caps and gowns and received flowers along with their certificates. Dixon was one of the commencement speakers.
“We were persistent about our education. We were persistent about our goals. Persistent about our future. Persistent about our success. But most importantly, we were persistent about ourselves, because we’ve been doubted and counted out a lot,” Dixon said.
The crimes that brought the women here include some that are very serious, including identity theft, attempted murder and child molestation. But the women said they've been working on changing their lives and this class is part of that.
Dixon said she’s excited for the opportunity to enter the tech field, and said getting permission to have some limited internet access made it easier to work on their class projects.
“We can code and we can test it, and I can see what it actually will look like for a user to interact with the things that I’m doing,” she said.
'I WANT TO BE A BETTER PERSON'
Landing a tech job is also a goal for Christina Cratty, 37.
“My whole life is based off of being able to get work in the IT field,” she said. “I want to be a better person than when I walk out these doors. This program is amazing, and it’s given me those tools that I need to get out and be better. Not go back to the life that I knew before.”
Her 18-year-old son, Spencer Cratty, was there to cheer her on. He was a baby when she graduated from high school – an event he was too young to remember. But now he’s fully aware of the significance of this milestone.
“I’m so proud of her,” Spencer said, lighting up with a big smile. “I think it’s going to be great. There’s going to be so many doors that she’s going to be able to step into, and so many opportunities for her. I’m so grateful for her.”
“I love you,” he said to her.
“I love you, too,” she said.