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Inside The Prisoner-Led Struggle To Win Education For All

Above Photo: Inmate training to become commercial underwater divers receive classroom instruction on diving history, science, and techniques at the Marine Technology Training Center, part of the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA), of the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, U.S., on Thursday, April 11, 2013. Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg / Getty Images.

Prisoners in Washington State are renewing their fight to democratize education amid new restrictions threatening their decade-old program.

Despite increasing recognition that prison education is a key tool for reducing crime, Washington State prisoners were recently forced to gather in a janitor’s closet to organize and facilitate college education for people incarcerated in several prisons across the state.

They took this dramatic step because new official restrictions are jeopardizing a liberating, prisoner-led program known as Taking Education And Creating History, or TEACH. Organized by a handful of incarcerated people — including me — over a decade ago, TEACH’s goal is to democratize education for people with long sentences.

Between community support and financial backing outside the correctional system, TEACH successfully circumvented the Department of Corrections, or DOC, policy of excluding long-term prisoners from education for much of its existence. Since 2013, over 300 incarcerated individuals across three state prisons have become college students.

In a monumental breakthrough, legislation was passed in 2021 that turned TEACH into an official, DOC-recognized program. However, new threats to the life-saving program are leading prisoners to renew their fight for education for all.

An investment worth making

Men incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory founded the Black Prisoners Caucus in 1972. Over the years, the caucus has done everything from drafting legislative bills to organizing fundraisers that support impoverished communities.

Roughly a decade ago, members of the Black Prisoners Caucus decided to organize around a common complaint: that the Washington DOC does not prioritize people with sentences longer than seven years for higher education. Whenever prisoners mustered up the courage to do something more with their lives, their lengthy sentences excluded them from classes, a clear indication the DOC does not consider them worthy of educational investment.

There are significant impacts to denying incarcerated people an education. In the absence of educational opportunities, the prison facility becomes a breeding ground for apathy and hopelessness, causing many prisoners to engage in prison politics and senseless acts of violence.

Furthermore, as laws change, and some prisoners have their lengthy sentences overturned, prisoners are released back into their communities devoid of resources and tools to function in society. The domino effect has led to more crime, which has led to higher recidivism rates: a counterproductive approach to creating a safer society.

The Black Prisoners Caucus decided to create a workaround by developing an independently-funded education program. Without DOC funding, the administration couldn’t deny access to prisoners with long sentences seeking education.

Incarcerated individuals at Clallam Bay reached out to representatives from both Evergreen and Seattle Central College, meetings were scheduled, and discussions began to center around the easiest way to provide education to those behind bars. Having nothing on hand but pen and paper, the prisoners and professors worked together through seminars and workshops. While professors offered their time to develop course curriculums, the prisoners put out posters and fliers, communicating TEACH’s vision in an attempt to attract more volunteers. The work was guided by a board of currently-incarcerated people at Clallam Bay, who voted Kimonti Carter as chairman.

In its first year, between 2013 and 2014, incarcerated students flooded into classrooms, and with them came new ideas. While professors were teaching world literature and political economy, prisoners began creating their own curriculums and teaching themselves. Specific dates and times were scheduled for specific classes, student rosters were kept to manage attendance, and surveys were created to be sure the prisoners were getting their educational needs met. As the program gained popularity, additional organizations and professors began lining up to volunteer their time and resources.

Crucially, everything for the program was funded from the outside. Sponsors like The Village of Hope donated math books, dictionaries, folders, pencils and composition books. Lydia Barlow, founder of Fabians Fund, initially offered to donate scholarships to the program, expressing her passion to help incarcerated individuals after her brother committed suicide while in prison. But she was so inspired by the work that Fabian’s Fund ultimately became TEACH’s primary funder, covering the college tuition of every student enrolled in the program.

In 2015, TEACH successfully implemented accredited courses through Seattle Central College — negotiating cheaper tuition for students by paying for classes in bulk. In 2016, the program received an $11,000 grant from the Social Justice Fund, enabling the program to provide more college courses to prisoners who sought to further their education.

The program began to expand to new prisons, a rarity for programs not officially sanctioned by the Department of Corrections. With our sponsors traveling from one prison to another, speaking to prison administrators about the program, TEACH made its way into Washington Correction Center and Stafford Creek Correctional Center, in addition to Clallam Bay. Separate TEACH boards were developed for each specific prison.

Although certain facilities have shown resistance, due to the preconception that the Black Prisoners Caucus would create racial conflict, TEACH and its sponsors had established enough credibility to gain backing from key members within DOC headquarters.

By explaining the obvious benefits that TEACH provides to Washington’s prison system, TEACH sponsors persuaded DOC to permit monitored conference calls between board members in every facility where the Black Prisoners Caucus exists. The calls enabled TEACH to plan and organize collectively to meet every facility’s educational needs.

Breaking down barriers

Over seven years, TEACH has had an impact far beyond educational opportunity. “One of the most amazing aspects of developing TEACH was the family dynamic it created,” explained Derrick Jones, president of the Black Prisoners Caucus at Washington Correction Center. “Knowing that we were trying to produce educational opportunities for all prisoners, it enabled us to concentrate on the development of the program, which gave us a sense of togetherness.”

Jones recounted how he witnessed prisoners endure violence from their racial groups for showing up to classes. “For a period of time,” he said, “prison politics threatened a number of white and Hispanic men for attending the TEACH program. Those who favored the prison status quo were offended that the TEACH program was run by Black men. In spite of the altercations, the prisoners-turned-students persistently pursued their education — even in the face of physical danger.”

“I realize that I have the potential to be more than a gang member.”

Progressively, TEACH began breaking down barriers between various racial and cultural groups — contradicting administrative beliefs that the Black Prisoners Caucus would further racial tension. Prisoners who would’ve never interacted with one another were now sitting at tables thumbing through books, while preparing for exams.

When asked how TEACH has impacted the prison environment, Darrell Jackson, co-chair of the TEACH program at Washington Correction Center, said, “It has reduced the violence in prison, while creating a positive educational community for everyone — regardless of one’s crime, race or affiliation.” He added, “Those with lengthy sentences were given a sense of purpose, something that many are stripped of when they enter into prison.”

Dakoda Collins’ feelings mirrored others in the program: TEACH altered the trajectory of his future.

“I was 16 years old when I came to prison,” he said. “My entire focus was to promote gang activity. After being charged with murder, my spirit sunk into the possibility of never coming home. I felt dead with no worth, and for me, there was no point in changing. Now that I’m taking college courses and passing with over a 3.0 GPA, I realize that I have the potential to be more than a gang member. I found value in myself, something I wouldn’t have had apart from this program.”

New challenges

As TEACH grew, there was a desire for the program to be recognized by the DOC, which would bring benefits like priority access to classrooms as well as supplies and materials within the facility. The program would also be protected from getting disbanded by prison officials. So TEACH sponsors assisted Washington State legislators to pass Bill 1024, which added TEACH to DOC’s official educational policy in 2021, making those benefits a reality.

Still, the program was greatly disrupted by the pandemic and DOC leadership changes later in 2021. With staff members refusing to comply with mandates placed on them as employees, many quit their jobs, leading the administration to lean heavily on prisoners to keep the facility operating. Without prison laborers, the facility’s food operations, laundry and maintenance could not function. Therefore, prisoners were forced to work, while the education building where classes were held was shut down. As a consequence, relationships between TEACH and its sponsors began to dwindle, and a major partnership that existed with Seattle Central College became uncertain.

In spite of the fact that TEACH has generated tremendous breakthroughs over the course of its existence, one of the greatest challenges has been recapturing the stability it once had prior to the pandemic.

In early 2023, incarcerated members of TEACH became aware of a DOC memo of understanding released in October of 2022 prohibiting the program’s board members from meeting without a Black Prisoners Caucus sponsor.

Although college classes were permitted to continue, the board would not be allowed to meet without a sponsor to supervise prisoners. The challenges felt insurmountable, but the program’s facilitators refused to cave.

With our hands tied by this restriction, the board members shifted from conducting our meetings in a classroom, to conducting them in a janitor’s closet. Squeezed into a small space with mop buckets, dirty rags and cleaning supplies, the board members gathered on weekends to strategize on how to continue providing educational opportunities for those in prison.

One member was given the task of generating a list of local colleges, another was delegated the responsibility of contacting professors who worked at the facility. Consequently, the TEACH program at Washington Corrections Center was able to enroll 32 students into Centralia College, this 2023 winter quarter.

With Elizabeth Grant teaching sociology and Alisha Williams teaching intercultural communications, the program continues to reduce recidivism by providing educational opportunities to prisoners. Currently eight prisoners from Washington Correction Center alone are less than a semester away from graduating.

Obtaining adequate technology, strong relationships with supporting colleges, and a bachelor’s degree pathway are all targets we aim to hit. Providing prisoners with access to valued resources, fair treatment, and an open door for higher education, is an investment worth making. Yes, there are times when the work feels taxing, and the fight against a system designed for prisoners to fail can be draining.

But as long as systemic barriers to education continue to surface, TEACH will continue fighting for educational opportunities for all prisoners.

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