The sense of accomplishment Tuesday night felt a bit more profound and meaningful than the usual commencement ceremony. The smiles seemed wider, the applause more spirited.
This was not your average college graduation.
For starters, just to get in, I had to take off my shoes and belt and go through a TSA-style security checkpoint. From there, I was led through a series of gates separating fences lined with razor wire and through several heavy doors guarded by correction officers who looked like NFL linemen.
The place was Purdy, more officially known as the Washington Corrections Center for Women. And the reason for the visit was a celebration years in the making: the commencement for the first-ever graduating class of the Freedom Education Project.
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Four women — convicted offenders, all sent by the criminal justice system to spend their days and nights behind locked doors — donned caps and gowns. With friends and family looking on, each received a moment of well-earned recognition — and more importantly an associate’s degree of arts and sciences.
“Failure is the norm for us. To sign up for school takes courage. It’s a step we’ve failed at before,” 58-year-old Lenore Smith, a member of the Freedom Education Project’s class of 2016 told the crowd as part of the commencement program’s student address. She recalled battling addiction on the outside and struggling to feel like she belonged in a college classroom once on the inside.
Program officials say building that confidence is the first step in the process of changing lives at the prison.
“A college student in a prison, that’s such a contradiction. For a lot of people, they don’t think of those two things in the same place,” said Tanya Erzen, the executive director of the program and an associate professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound.
A college student in a prison, that’s such a contradiction. For a lot of people, they don’t think of those two things in the same place.
Tanya Erzen, the Executive Director of the program and an associate professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound
“Suddenly, you have people … with a college degree,” Erzen continued. “Having that be official, really says (to offenders) that you may have committed a crime, you may have done something to hurt another person, but there is a possibility that you can make something better of your life.”
The path that led to Tuesday night was long and paved by the work of the dedicated volunteer professors who propel the Freedom Education Project. Equally, it was a testament to the offenders who have invested the time and work to take advantage of it.
Designated as a signature initiative of the University of Puget Sound, similar to the school’s heralded Race and Pedagogy Initiative, the nonprofit Freedom Education Project is staffed by professors from UPS and several other colleges and universities throughout the region. And it’s making a name for itself. Recently, Erzen and UPS Academic Vice President and Dean Kristine Bartanen traveled to the White House to talk about the endeavor and the subject of criminal justice reform.
According to Erzen, the Freedom Education Project took off in early 2012 at the prison after a women’s group, known as The Village, expressed interest in college coursework. For the first two years, the handful of classes, offered to a handful of offenders, were not for credit.
That changed in 2014, when a partnership with Tacoma Community College was forged and the educational offerings — which Erzen describes as rigorous and no different than the college courses offered at traditional college campuses — became accredited.
Since that time, the nearly daily Freedom Education Project classes at the prison have helped offenders at Purdy re-imagine and redefine themselves. Tuesday night’s graduation honored the first four women to earn the 90 credits necessary to receive associate’s degrees. Erzen expects next year’s graduating class to include 15 women, and there’s talk of soon offering a bachelor’s degree.
Today, nearly 140 women are enrolled in Freedom Education Project classes. By 2020, the project hopes 50 percent of the women incarcerated in Washington prisons will be enrolled in college. “It’s just going to get bigger and bigger,” Erzen says.
Failure is the norm for us. To sign up for school takes courage. It’s a step we’ve failed at before.
Lenore Smith, a member of the Freedom Education Project’s class of 2016
“I have changed my life significantly,” Smith said of her experience and her new degree. “The only word in my vocabulary was failure. I had to look up the definition of success. … Now I feel good about me. I have tasted success, in prison. The first step was to get into (the Freedom Education Project).”
It was a common sentiment and an anecdotal example of the power of the program and programs like it. According to a 2013 study by the Rand Corp., offenders who attend college while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to re-offend. Meanwhile, women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, and nationally seven out of 10 women who are incarcerated return to prison.
So who are the women enrolled in the Freedom Education Program? A student profile provided by the program provides a glimpse:
Seventy-eight percent have been the victims of domestic violence.
Sixty-four percent do not have a parent who went to college.
Seventy percent are mothers, with an average of two children.
Sixty-seven percent have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, including 44 percent who suffer from depression and 34 percent who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Seventy-three percent of the offenders enrolled in the program are in prison for the first time.
And despite their status as convicted offenders, all of them are still people.
If the purpose of the system really is to rehabilitate, the criminal justice world outside the walls of Purdy should be taking notes.
Take 25-year-old Melissa McMillen, convicted of second-degree murder in 2013. McMillen gave birth to a newborn in the bathroom of her father’s Tacoma home five years ago this month, and medical examiners determined the child died there. Prosecutors described the crime as an attempt to hide an unwanted pregnancy. McMillen’s attorney, during sentencing, contended that she suffered from neonaticide syndrome — a condition where women cannot accept their pregnancies and are psychologically unprepared when they give birth.
I knew McMillen when she was a young woman at the center of unfathomable circumstances. I was not expecting to see her again, like this, at a moment of celebration and accomplishment. She said speaking to me now felt somehow appropriate.
“I think it’s allowed me to just be the person I want to be,” McMillen said of what the Freedom Education Project has done for her, after we’d been awkwardly reacquainted. “It’s helped me take something negative and turn it into something positive. If this doesn’t stop me. … There’s nothing that will.”
I think it’s allowed me to just be the person I want to be. It’s helped me take something negative and turn it into something positive. If this doesn’t stop me … there’s nothing that will.
Melissa McMillen, a member of the Freedom Education Project’s class of 2016
Thirty-three-year-old Alyssa Knight, who graduated from the Freedom Education Project’s associate’s program with a 3.9 GPA, offered a similar second-chance story. She told me she arrived at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in 2004 after being convicted of second-degree murder. She has nine years left on her sentence and a teenage daughter on the outside.
But Tuesday, Knight — like everyone — was intent on looking forward.
“Our identity is completely constructed,” she said. “We don’t just get to be this one thing.”
Asked where she’ll go from here, she continued: “I can’t imagine my life in this prison without being in a college program. … I’m just going to keep going.”
That’s the idea.
“People are much more complicated than to be defined by their crime,” Erzen said. “To hear women talk about themselves as a student, when their whole lives they’ve been told you’re not smart, you’re worthless. … It gives them a sense of confidence and self-esteem.
“When you treat people as students, and as people who have important contributions to make, something happens that’s really powerful.”
I’ve seen it firsthand.