This year, the Washington State Department of Correction made a change regarding who is now eligible to attend their vocational and associate workforce degree programs while incarcerated.
Up until July of this year, if you were serving life without the possibility of parole, or LWOP as it is called inside the walls, your choices for furthering your education were severely limited, including only pre-college math and English. You could forget about computer programming certifications or business degrees.
With the Washington State legislature passing House Bill 1044, that’s now all in the past.
The purpose of this bill, according to Kristen Morgan, associate dean at Monroe Correctional Complex, is to create pathways for incarcerated individuals, including those serving life without parole, to receive education beyond the high school level.
Up until now, the people serving LWOP have been barred from almost all schooling or training programs that would help them lead a productive life on the outside. The seats in those programs have been allocated to those with less time to serve.
This has been a hotly debated topic for years. On one hand, people have said that there is no need to educate those with LWOP sentences because they would never be able to apply these skills. The other side has disagreed, pointing to considerations like clemency, re-sentencing or vindication due to new evidence, all of which have seen countless individuals released from prison.
For those people serving LWOP sentences, getting out is a real possibility though the process requires time.
Clemency, for instance, is by far the most popular route to be released from prison in these cases. Even so, most of the time, the board won’t even look at your application unless you’ve done a significant portion of your sentence, usually 20 years or more. The biggest problem arises when an individual is sentenced to LWOP, serves more than 20 years and is then suddenly released after being denied any meaningful education or job training for decades. If that’s not being set up to fail, what is?
The state recognizes this catastrophic failure and, with the passing of this bill, has taken a first step toward fixing the problem. A step, no doubt, that has the potential to enrich many lives in the coming years.
The system we have is far from perfect, and it probably never will be. But that’s OK. Perfection is the sunset in fairy tales, a nice story but something you won’t hold your breath to see. We don’t need perfection as long as we keep trying to do better.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.