Helping inmates succeed through education

This is the story of a female inmate who was incarcerated in our Seattle jail in March 2015.  

She had previously started community college at Seattle Central College (SCC) but dropped out of her classes because she became incarcerated. Dropping out left her with a bill of over $400 that prevented her from reenrolling until paid. She enrolled in the women’s GED course at the King County Correctional Facility (KCCF) where she was connected with the SCC’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (IBEST) program. This is a college level certification program with extra support for basic skills from Seattle Education Access (SEA) who provide financial support and case management to low income students. After a few weeks of collaboration by her attorney, SEA representative, IBEST representative, and the KCCF GED teacher, they were able to help her cause by getting her a place in work release and reenrolled at SCC. SEA also donated $200 toward her bill and IBEST program staff helped her work with her extended family to responsibly pay back the money she owed to the college. She continues to attend school and is hoping to one day transfer to the University of Washington. She was released in July 2015 and has not recidivated to this date.

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Inmates from all different backgrounds are able to participate in the program to further their education and success.

This is just one of the many success stories that are due to the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention’s work to provide GED classes and testing through jail programming.

Since the program’s start at the King County Correctional Facility in 1998, more than 5,400 people have taken the GED test and more than 4,800 have passed; many also achieving their GED.

In 2013, DAJD learned that Washington State would make GED testing an online test instead of the paper and pencil test used for years. This raised many questions about the challenges they would be facing if they continued to offer GED courses and tests to the inmate students. How would they bring computers and internet-based testing into the secure perimeter of the jails? What kind of security would it require?

To do so, DAJD relied on some one-time funding through a King County Council proviso.  The funding allowed DAJD to bring in a set of 12 laptops on a cart at each facility and other hardware, software and educational tools. The cart would act as a power hub for the laptops as many of the rooms where the inmates were tested are concrete rooms without power sources.

Early test results were discouraging. The computerized test appeared to be more difficult, not only in content, but because not everyone had the computer literacy to successfully maneuver through the test.  DAJD’s contracted teachers found themselves feeling discouraged as they watched the passing rates decrease.

“The teachers had to change the way they taught,” Steve Larsen, Chief of Administration for DAJD said. “Instead of simply teaching the material that would be on the GED test, they had to teach inmates computer and keyboard skills as well as specific content in social studies and science that the previous test did not require.”

Once inmate students became comfortable using computers, the passing rate began to go up. Larsen said they see a lot of pride in the inmates who pass and are able to comfortably use the technology. It makes them feel accomplished and hopeful when they leave because they have a GED and computer skills, he said.

“A lot of the inmates haven’t had a lot of breaks,” Larsen said. “They haven’t had a community to care or to help them out.  Our GED teachers are very good at what they do, and they also care deeply about the success of their students.”

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Earning their academic degree and attaining the skills to successfully move on after incarceration ends is a point of pride for many inmates.

Not only do the teachers teach necessary skills for the computerized GED, but they also help students with necessary life skills. The teachers emphasize the importance of building relationships and making connections with other students, Larsen said.  They also connect the students to their community colleges, making it easier for individuals to continue their education and not slip back into incarceration once released from jail, he added.

And at the end of the course, if the inmate is still incarcerated when they pass the GED test, DAJD holds a graduation ceremony where they present the inmates with their certificates and bring inmates currently in the program in to watch.  Pictures of graduates in graduation robes with their certificates are mailed to the student inmates’ families for continued recognition of the effort put forth to achieve such an important milestone.

“Seeing inmates proud of their accomplishments, and talking about their journey” Larsen said, “makes the other inmates want to continue working so that they can achieve that too.”