Joy, tears as 19 inmates in state’s prison for women earn college degrees

Nineteen women inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women graduated last week with associate degrees through a fast-growing college program run by a Tacoma nonprofit.

GIG HARBOR — College graduations are emotional occasions, but it would be hard to match the level of enthusiasm and joy that pervaded the gymnasium at the Washington Corrections Center for Women this month when 19 inmates received diplomas.

Parents and grandparents, sons and daughters, cousins and friends and other student inmates filled the room, bursting into applause over and over. Laughing, crying and shouting “You go, girl!” again and again.

The women in royal blue caps and gowns were all long-term inmates, serving sentences for such crimes as robbery and attempted murder. Twelve will be released in the next five years.

Critics of college in prison have long argued that felons should not get a free postsecondary education while serving time. Under Washington state law, taxpayer money can only be used to help offenders earn a high-school diploma. This year, new legislation passed that expanded the offerings to include a business or vocational associate degree.

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But these women are working on liberal-arts degrees, paid for by a private group that believes a college education makes it less likely inmates will return to crime, and more likely they’ll get a job.

The program is run by Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit that provides an accredited college program to women at the Gig Harbor prison, and helps them continue their educations after they are released.

Last year, the five-year-old program — which is offered only at this prison — had four graduates. This year, it was 19. Next year, as many as 30 of the program’s 80 enrolled students are on track to complete a degree.

“This is the largest women’s prison graduation I have ever seen, and I am so…

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