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Bridging a Technology Gap: $250,000 Grant Provides Laptops to Incarcerated Students at Washington Corrections Center for Women

July 7, 2021

By Rachel Friederich Communications Office

GIG HARBOR – The COVID-19 pandemic has made distance learning the main method of getting an education for students across the country. And now it will hopefully become easier for incarcerated students at one women’s prison, thanks to a technology grant.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $250,000 grant to expand technology for students taking college classes at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

The grant will be used to purchase 100 new laptops for incarcerated students to use who are enrolled in Tacoma Community College (TCC) courses and classes taught through the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound (FEPPS). Students would be able to use the laptops while enrolled in these classes. The grant will also help pay for two part-time staff to provide information technology support to integrate the use of laptops and teach incarcerated students to use them. Additionally, the grant will fund a needs assessment for and purchase of assistive technologies for incarcerated students with learning disabilities.

This grant reflects the strong collaboration between the facility, TCC and FEPPS and it will allow us to do things we weren’t able to do before,” said FEPPS Executive Director Jennifer Bright. “It levels the playing field. It will allow us to be able to do more towards comparable education technologies and it will be a huge step forward to having the kinds of technological tools many of us take for granted on the outside.”

Bright says the number of FEPPS and TCC students enrolled in courses varies each quarter, but historically there have been between 80 and 120 students at any one time.

Barriers to Education

All of the Department of Corrections’ educational classes aim to give incarcerated students the same educational content taught at colleges and universities outside of prisons. However, prison environments, by their very nature, have created barriers to educational access.

Institutional libraries and computer labs are only accessible at certain times of the day. The selection of materials students can borrow is limited. Since no incarcerated individuals currently have access to the internet, professors end up printing copies of research materials for students. The majority of assignments are still handwritten.

In 2019, the state legislature had approved a secure internet access “proof of concept” pilot program at WCCW in which students used a secure classroom server for assignments. But its use was limited to a small cohort of students in TCC’s web development program. After the pilot, program officials were going to produce a report detailing results as well as a plan for providing secure internet access at other facilities. However, the pandemic slowed progress on those deliverables. Now, the DOC is working on a statewide technological upgrade that will eventually provide secure internet access to all incarcerated individuals via tablets and laptops.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those barriers, with cancellations of many classes for at least part of 2020. By the fall, most classes had resumed, but with smaller class sizes to allow social distancing. And almost all classes are operating on a hybrid model, with students spending more time completing assignments in their living units, rather than in classrooms.

DOC Education Services Administrator Loretta Taylor says while the health and safety of incarcerated students is the top concern among faculty, prolonged suspension of educational programs can have a detrimental effect—leaving students feeling discouraged and isolated.

“The department continues to seek ways to bring secure technology to incarcerated students to allow them to participate in education in a safe way,” Taylor said. “We know the transformative power of education, especially in a correctional setting. When the correctional facility population becomes even more isolated in situations like a pandemic, it’s even more important to find ways to bring quality education programs to students to keep them engaged, productive and moving toward positive change.”

Recognizing the additional hurdles to education the pandemic caused, correctional educators applied for the grant.

Since 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has supported programs providing college-and-university-level education instruction in US prisons. The grant FEPPS received specifically focuses on providing support to prison education providers during the pandemic.

Educators say the grant couldn’t have come at a better time.

“The pandemic has highlighted endemic challenges in corrections education – particularly independent access to instructional resources outside of a classroom,” said TCC Director of Correctional Education, Dr. Sultana Shabazz. “A student on a community campus can go to the library, access open education resource materials, and use online resources to supplement and support their academic work. Incarcerated students don’t have that ability. New technology – personal laptops, internet access – supercharges the educational experience and our communities will be better for it.”

About the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound

The Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound provides a rigorous college program for incarcerated women, trans-identified and gender non-conforming people in Washington and creates pathways to higher education after students are released from prison.