Senate passes Walsh bill expanding education programs for prison inmates

OLYMPIA – A bill offering new educational opportunities for prison inmates passed the state Senate Wednesday, allowing community and technical colleges to expand two-year degree programs in Washington prisons.

The first bill sponsored by Sen. Maureen Walsh to clear the Senate, Senate Bill 5069 authorizes the Department of Corrections to partner with community and technical colleges to provide associate degree programs, preparing inmates to re-enter the workforce.

“We have to recognize that most prisoners will eventually be released and return to our communities,” Walsh said. “This will provide them with the education they need in order to obtain family-wage jobs, and enable them to become productive members of society. It’s the right thing to do.”

The measure was approved by the Senate by a vote of 46-0. It now moves to the state House of Representatives.

SB 5069 expands on existing programs providing basic education and job training at the state’s 12 adult prisons. The measure will promote development of more specialized two-year degree programs. Priority will be given to inmates within five years of release. Those serving sentences of life without parole, or who are on death row, are ineligible.

Studies show that prison inmates are less likely to reoffend upon release when they obtain vocational training. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy concluded in 2015 that for every dollar invested in prison education programs, the state sees a return of $18.40 in the form of fewer crimes and incarcerations.

Washington’s prison education programs already award double the national average of GEDs to prison inmates, and vocational certificates and limited two-year degree programs also are offered. But the emphasis of current efforts has gone to basic literacy and job skills. The bill does not authorize additional funding for two-year degree programs and creates no additional cost for the state, but allows for private donations and inmate contributions.