Despite its crumbling walls and tiny cells, the 112-year-old Washington State Reformatory was a sought-after destination.

It took Thomus Davis more than a decade and several transfers to get there. He, like others, wanted to take advantage of its well-regarded college program, which offered a liberal-arts degree to anyone, regardless of sentence. 

Over two years, he had earned 30 credits – about a third of the way – toward an associate degree. Then, in summer 2021, it all evaporated. Washington state announced it would close the prison. And suddenly the college educations of Davis and almost 50 others were ending mid-stream. 

“I just knew in my gut that if [the prison] closed, most likely my college career was over,” Davis said.

Now, only a handful of students have been able to continue in college programs at other prisons around the state. Davis ended up at Airway Heights in eastern Washington. There, he’s been on a waitlist for a vocational program for more than a year.

The power of education
Art Longworth, center, shown here in 2015, has since been released from custody. He was one of 12 Adams State bachelor’s students who had their education interrupted when the state closed Washington State Reformatory in October 2021. Photo: Sy Bean / The Seattle Times

What happened after the reformatory closure illuminates the fragility of prison education. Even as college offerings are poised to expand across the country next year, with incarcerated students again becoming eligible for Pell Grants, the story of the Washington state students shows just how fleeting even established programs can be. Access to higher education often comes down to a matter of geography — and luck.

Prison education has been shown by a large body of research to reduce violence and keep people from going back to prison. In fact, the higher the level of education, the lower the chances of going back. One 2018 article analyzing studies of post-release outcomes found that people who participated in prison education were 28% less likely to return. 

But recidivism alone does not fully capture the benefits of prison education. Studies have also shown the value of providing education to people who won’t ever go home. People serving long sentences often become role models and mentors to others. 

Inconsistency threatens to undermine the transformative power of those opportunities. 

Unlike their peers on the outside, incarcerated students don’t have freedom of choice when it comes to college or major. There is unequal access to college options across states and even within facilities. Some end up being transferred to another institution before they finish. Colleges may end their programs. Or, like in Washington, a prison can close altogether.

Then, even when students do make it into another program, they often have to repeat coursework because credits don’t transfer or because the new college requires them to take a certain number of classes.

The Washington State Reformatory was targeted for closure because of empty beds and high operating costs. But community members and prisoners alike protested because of the unique educational opportunities and other rehabilitative programs offered there.

“Close the prison, shut them all down. But of all of them, leave this one as the last standing,” Anthony Wright, a former student who graduated in 2011, said in an interview. “I get that the infrastructure is horrible, but why would you close a place that is so beneficial to people?”

Among the educational opportunities was an associate degree program funded through a combination of federal Pell Grants and private dollars. The program was offered by University Beyond Bars, a nonprofit, in partnership with Seattle Central College. 

University Beyond Bars also offered a rare option for the men to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts — funded by grants and private donations at no cost to the students — through Adams State University, one of the largest providers of correspondence education. Students received credit from Colorado-based Adams State, but studied as a cohort with local professors who taught the curriculum. 

The Washington State Department of Corrections and University Beyond Bars were unable to find another prison for the program to operate out of due to issues such as space. 

A representative of Seattle Central said that the success of the program was dependent on its proximity to Seattle and there were no similar opportunities at a different prison. 

National shifts
Older prisons such as the Washington State Reformatory are home to some of the most rigorous college-in-prison programs because of their proximity to urban areas. The closure of the reformatory in October 2021 spelled the end for its college program, University Beyond Bars. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus

The closure of the Washington State Reformatory is part of a larger movement to reduce prison capacity around the United States, partly due to a declining incarcerated population. Other aging facilities that could be on the chopping block offer some of the best-known college programs in the country. Historically, prisons were often built near population centers, and now those aging facilities host some of the most-rigorous education options because of their proximity to colleges, nonprofit groups, and others that support those programs. 

In the Bay Area, San Quentin — which has been targeted by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office for possible closure because of the high cost of maintaining a 170-year-old facility — is seen as a national model of prison education. The prison is home to Mount Tamalpais College, the first independent liberal-arts institution specifically serving incarcerated students. 

Stateville Correctional Facility, a nearly 100-year-old prison outside of Chicago, has the most college programming of all Illinois prisons, with four colleges serving about 300 students a year. The population there has been reduced by half in recent years. As a result of transfers, one college program there recently lost about one-third of their total enrollment, Injustice Watch reported. 

Groups working at these urban prisons found ways to continue to offer college programs in the wake of the 1994 federal crime bill that eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners. Conservative lawmakers argued that people in prison were diverting resources from other students, but grants to people in prison did not affect the availability or size of grants for others, according to a 1994 analysis by the Government Accountability Office. 

After the crime bill gutted federal financial aid for incarcerated students, the number of college-in-prison programs nationally dwindled from more than 700 to just a handful. The surviving programs were able to find private financial support and a steady stream of volunteers, including professors from nearby colleges. Such programs are difficult to replicate in more remote areas.

In December 2020, Congress reinstated widespread access to Pell Grants for people in prison, building on the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell program, which now has approximately 200 sites across the country, one of which was University Beyond Bars, the Washington nonprofit. There are currently three active Second Chance Pell sites in Washington prisons.  

University Beyond Bars is now shifting its focus to reentry support due to the changing landscape of prison education and uncertainty around what Pell Grant restoration will mean for third-party organizations, according to Kelly Johnson, operations and community resource manager.

A unique opportunity

The Washington State Reformatory, surrounded by 30-foot red brick walls, was the second-oldest in the state. It opened in 1910 in Monroe, about a 40-minute drive northeast of Seattle, perched on top of a hill with a view of the Cascades. At the time the closure was announced in July 2021, 370 men lived there, in 6-by-9 foot open-bar cells stacked in four tiers. 

Many of the incarcerated men said they view the reformatory as one of the safest prisons in Washington State – and credit University Beyond Bars, also known as UBB. 

Tim Pauley has been in 11 prisons in Washington and other states over 40 years. “UBB changed the entire culture of this prison,” he said. “Most of the other prisons that I’ve been to are like human warehouses. I’ve seen people that, at one point in time, were in rival gangs…sitting down in the day room tutoring each other.”

He became involved with University Beyond Bars shortly after he arrived at the reformatory in 2010. He finished his associate degree through the program and is one class away from completing his bachelor’s degree from Adams State. 

Many of the men in the prison were serving life sentences, for serious crimes such as murder. For people like them, the reformatory offered one of the few pathways to a degree inside. Despite legislation that passed last year to expand access to postsecondary education in Washington prisons, in practice, people with sentences longer than 10 years remain at the back of the line. 

Thomus Davis was a third of the way toward earning his associate degree when the Washington State Reformatory closed last fall. “I just knew…most likely my college career was over,” he said. Photo provided by Thomus Davis’s family

Thomus Davis, who is 26 years into a life without parole sentence, says he initially sought an education in prison because it was something he could do that would give his family a reason to be proud. Recent resentencing reform for people convicted as young adults could also mean he has a chance of eventually being released. “There’s a possibility of my life changing, so it’s actually something I feel like I now need, to prove to society I can be a part of it,” he said. 

Priority for education is based on “risk level, individual needs, expected release date, and availability of program resources,” according to state corrections department policy

Now, the only opportunity for men to earn a four-year degree with public funding is a bachelor’s of applied science through a community college at a prison in eastern Washington — located 200 miles away from Seattle. 

The state community and technical college system offers a number of applied associate degrees and other vocational programs. 

Most of the college programs that have been open to all regardless of sentence are operated by third-party organizations. The Black Prisoners Caucus, a grassroots social justice and cultural group, runs BPC Teach, which offers community college classes leading to an associate’s paid for by external sponsors. But that program, which was slowed down because of COVID, doesn’t operate at all prisons and does not currently offer four-year degrees. 

The main women’s prison, near Tacoma, offers an associate degree and bachelor’s degree through a partnership between the nonprofit Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, Tacoma Community College, and the University of Puget Sound.

Many of the men say they are hoping that Pell Grant restoration will bring more opportunities at more prisons to continue beyond an associate degree, or finish the one they’ve already started. 

More than a year after the Washington State Reformatory was shut down, the 50 University Beyond Bars students have been transferred all over the state. In summer 2021, 10 of the 38 associate’s students were within one quarter of completing their degrees. Only two of those students were able to graduate by finishing via correspondence. 

Often, students were left to fend for themselves when trying to enroll in other programs.

Open Campus was able to contact 30 of the 38 students and 19 have not enrolled in any other program. One student received clemency and was released a few months after the reformatory closed. Besides the two who graduated, only three have been able to enroll in other community colleges where they can take the final classes they need to finish their degrees from Seattle Central. All of them had release dates within five years. 

Two others have been able to take transferable classes that they paid for themselves or were funded by another nonprofit. 

None of the 12 students who were in the Adams State bachelor’s program have been able to finish their degrees as they lost access to the private scholarship funding their correspondence courses.

Even the few who have been able to continue to make progress toward their degrees have had their educations disrupted by pandemic-related lockdowns and staff shortages.

The prison education experience, says Clarke Davis, a former UBB student who will graduate next quarter, is like “getting a full-body tattoo one little piece at a time, praying you don’t run out of ink.”

This story was co-published by The Seattle Times.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.