As a kid in Washington State, shuffling nervously into Miss DeVries’s first-grade class, I had no idea how decisions being made in the other Washington that year would affect the future of my education.
That year, in 1994, the government was gutting funds for college courses in prison, part of a “nothing works” narrative that was then dominating discussions about the criminal-legal system. Believing every dollar spent on higher education in prison was a dollar sent down the toilet, federal lawmakers passed a crime bill that, while expanding the carceral system, made “status as a prisoner” a disqualifier for Pell funding. The barely tacit message coming out of Congress: in the eyes of the government, prisons may be worthy of investment—but prisoners are not.
As a six-year-old with no expectation of future confinement, caring little for prison and less for what programs are offered there probably seems reasonable. But it wasn’t. Before leaving elementary school, I began my hardly unique path to prison: I was the victim of abuse—the sort that’s just not polite to discuss with strangers. And from then on, churning beneath a placid surface, I was scared, I was isolated, I was on the verge of being broken. For years I struggled before finding solace in the bottom of a small ziplock bag. And what happened next is of little surprise to anyone: a 20-year prison sentence for first-degree assault.
By the time I entered prison in 2010, the fallout from gutted funding was everywhere. Scarce opportunities had soured the culture in prison. Without constructive outlets, many prisoners who otherwise would have excelled were left bored and stationary—and you know what they say about idle hands.
Old timers I met spoke of days when educational programs filled every room in the school buildings. But all I saw were classrooms retrofitted as office space.
Still suffering from first-grade naivety, I spent my first six years buying into and perpetuating the toxic culture clouding the facilities. I bounced from place to place, spending large chunks of time in solitary confinement. My stints in general population were typically at notoriously violent facilities like the Washington State Penitentiary—known officially as the “West Complex,” colloquially as the “Wild West.” These were places where opportunities—for anything other than a fight—were few.
Eventually luck got a hold of me and I was transferred to the Washington State Reformatory. And there I learned that even after the government gave up on college for prisoners, many private funders did not. At this facility, a college-in-prison program—University Beyond Bars—operated entirely by private funding. I quickly signed up and was soon neck deep in a smattering of liberal-arts courses: Social Problems, International Relations, English Composition, Oceanography, etc.
Even after the government gave up on college for prisoners, many private funders did not.
In the classroom I found a diverse group of students working together, solving problems, and developing new outlooks on life. I also found relationships being forged across boundaries that, at other facilities, due to pressured adherence to a racialized and predatory prison code, would have been impossible. It was the first time in years I sat in a room and felt a sense of normalcy. It was the first time I had seen a place resembling what the old timers spoke about.
Having access to vibrant college programs is what drives success for people in prison—my own life is testament to this. It’s no coincidence that my transformation to good catapulted when I arrived at WSR. Whereas before I spent days huddled up with other prisoners, scheming over how to win more power on the yard, now I huddle around dayroom tables helping fellow students with homework. It’s also no coincidence that one of my mom’s happiest memories is watching me deliver the keynote address at UBB’s annual graduation in 2019, just moments after I received my very own degree. (Search “Tomas Keen” on YouTube.)
With my own life as evidence, I saw the value of an opportunity to attend college classes—and I wanted to give back. Some fellow prisoners and I established a grantwriting team for UBB and set out to fund the program. And while we were wildly successful, winning more than a million dollars in just over a year, times were anything but good. Every day we were met with the challenge of needing to prove the value of college-in-prison programs to representatives of charitable foundations who, in some cases, likely learned everything they knew about prison from Law and Order.
In these moments of worry I remember being so frustrated. Sitting in UBB’s on-premise office, I’d wonder out loud, “At the end of the day, the government justifies holding people as prisoners by claiming that services provided during confinement lead to rehabilitation. And it’s this justification that allows society to feel less morally icky about living outside the wire in a carceral state.”
After a few moments of silence, I’d turn to my fellow grantwriters and ask, “How, then, can it be anything but the government’s responsibility to provide the services that actually rehabilitate? Why are private funders being left to hold the bag?”
Almost as if people from the government were listening, Congress has returned Pell eligibility to prisoners. And states, too, are getting involved. Washington recently passed HB 1044 that allows for funding up to a bachelor’s degree and contains fewer barriers than Pell, ensuring that nearly every prisoner in my state will have an opportunity to become a college student. Everywhere we look, governments are now working to reproduce the successes of privately funded programs.
Government funding brings all sorts of benefits because it simultaneously brings all sorts of added directives for prison administrators. At least in Washington State, administrators are now legally required to assist with application and planning processes, support people with learning differences, and consider providing access to secure internet. All of these will undoubtedly advance the quality of college education for prisoners.
Still, there remains an indispensable role for private funding. Even when public sentiment rallied around the “nothing works” narrative, private funders held the line and committed to recognizing that all people, even prisoners, are worthy of investment. And this commitment remains just as vital today, as the different government funding streams have varying criteria and barriers, some even excluding people based on prior loans, sentence length, or citizenship status. Filling the gaps left by government programs is the future of private funders.
Tomas Keen is an incarcerated writer from Washington State. His work has been featured in Inquest, The Crime Report, and Process, a journal at the University of Washington. He can be contacted on Jpay or at firstname.lastname@example.org