A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • This week, we look at a pre-apprenticeship program in Washington that introduces incarcerated women to the trades.
  • Last month, Ithaka S+R’s Kurtis Tanaka moderated a panel with Charlotte West, Ruth Delaney (Vera Institute), and Sheila Meiman (NASFAA) on Pell Grant resources for librarians. You can watch the recording here. Related: Check out our FAQ on Pell in prison.
  • ICYMI: We asked people in prison how they really use tablets.

The value of hands-on learning in prison

Women in Washington reflect on their experience with a pre-apprenticeship that introduces them to the trades.

GIG HARBOR, Wash. — “You can see the dig area,” says Steven Petermann, pointing to a dusty patch of dirt outside the door of the workshop building. “It actually needs to be weeded out.”

“Not it!” a voice calls out.

“Not it!” another echoes, as laughter breaks out among the group of women wearing forest green t-shirts emblazoned with the white Washington State Correctional Industries logo.

It’s smoothed over now, but during masonry week this patch of dirt is where the women practice digging and backfilling trenches — by hand — as part of the training they receive through the Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC) program, which started in 2013.

The 16-week pre-apprenticeship program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women introduces the women to trades such as carpentry, construction, and ironworking. The goal is that by exposing them to those skills now, they’ll be well-equipped for paid apprenticeships on the other side.

The program is physically and mentally demanding. The union test for ironworking, for instance, involves picking up an 80 lb piece of rebar — a solid steel pole — carrying it 100 feet, putting it down, picking it up again, and carrying it back…35 times in 30 minutes.

“The rebar carry is probably at least as fun as the hole dig, right?” interjects Petermann — he runs the program. The women laugh again.

These women, part of the program’s 64th class, graduated in May. Of the more than 250 women who have completed the pre-apprenticeship, 220 are no longer incarcerated and around 40 are active apprentices or have attained journey level status. The program also operates at Washington’s second women’s prison, Mission Creek.

Lani Kraabell gives a tour of the TRAC workshop at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. (Charlotte West/Open Campus)

When I visited the prison in May, Brittany Wright had plans to go down to the Cement Masons & Plasterers Local Union 528 in Seattle when she got out a few days later. She’s now an apprentice working on a light rail expansion project for Sound Transit, making $31 an hour plus benefits. “I’m a little nervous, but more excited to get out there and actually start using the trades,” she told me at the time. “They seem like they’re willing to work with me. And that’s all that matters.”

TRAC graduates aren’t guaranteed automatic entry into one of the unions, but the community relationships that Petermann has developed help smooth the way. Some union representatives will come to the prison to allow the women to take the entrance exam before they are released. Petermann has also secured grant funding that will help the women cover initial costs such as purchasing their tools and union membership dues. Having an employer they know they can reach out to when they get out can be essential to a successful reentry.

Getting into the program is a heavy lift — literally. Participants have to be physically fit enough to dig ditches, haul gravel, and carry 80 lb rebar all day long. The program has some attrition — sometimes people don’t realize what exactly they are getting themselves into, Petermann says, until they actually feel the burning in their forearms.

TRAC is designed to simulate the workday of union employees in various trades, adds instructor Ian O’Doyle, all the while keeping ergonomics and safety in mind.

There’s also a classroom component: The women have to do math homework, learn how to tie knots, practice interview skills, write a resume, and complete financial literacy lessons. Those skills will benefit the women even if they decide a career in the trades isn’t for them, Petermann hopes.

Men incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton are able to do a similar pre-apprenticeship that was modeled on TRAC, but they also earn community college credits. But Petermann says that the women’s program actually has more autonomy and flexibility because it isn’t run through a college. They can bring in instructors who might lack the academic credentials required to teach at a college but who have years of industry experience.

“Higher education is not going to put food on the table”

Graduate Veronica Marry, teaching assistant Tiana Wood-Sims, instructor Ian O’Boyle, graduate Brittany Wright, and graduate Lani Kraabell. The TRAC program started in 2013. (Charlotte West/Open Campus)

Petermann looks at apprenticeships as offering another kind of education, one that can immediately lead to a living-wage career without the debt that people often incur for college. “It’s not the pathway, it’s another pathway,” he says. “And so it’s a different pathway for a different type of person.”

Some of the women are also students in a college program through Tacoma Community College and the University of Puget Sound, in partnership with the nonprofit Freedom Education Project Puget Sound. Standing beside the dirt patch, talking over the traffic noise coming from Highway 16 on the other side of a double metal fence, the women reflect on what different types of education inside means for them.

When Soy was first incarcerated, she was facing more than 20 years in prison. (As a condition of interviewing Soy, the Washington Department of Corrections did not allow us to use her last name). Because of the length of her sentence, college was initially the only program available to her — TRAC prioritizes students who have a release date between 5 and 15 months away.

When she eventually transferred to lower security custody, she wanted to gain more practical experience. “I had to think about what I was going to do,” Soy says. “I had no skills, nothing besides being in college.”

She remembers a conversation she had with a representative of the laborers union who came to visit the TRAC students. She told him that she wasn’t sure if she wanted a career in the trades, but was hoping to use the program to get her foot in the door. He told her that there were other opportunities to work within the industry, such as being a business manager. She said she hadn’t really thought about how she could combine the practical experience with her degree before that interaction.

Tiana Wood-Sims and Lani Kraabell are graduates of the Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching program. Wood-Sims will also finish a bachelor’s degree from University of Puget Sound in spring 2024. (Charlotte West/Open Campus)

Tiana Wood-Sims, who works as a teacher’s assistant for the program, says her academic classes have taught her critical thinking but won’t immediately translate into employment. “Higher education has been a beautiful experience for me,” she says. “I learned a lot about myself, but it’s not going to help me to put food on the table.”

Wood-Sims, who will earn her bachelors from the University of Puget Sound in spring 2024, did a pre-apprenticeship program in advanced manufacturing where she learned how to make parts using a CNC machine, which uses software to automate the tools used for manufacturing, or by manual operation on a lathe or mill. Like Soy, she’s hoping to get a job and then move into a management position.

Hands-on training provided by apprenticeships might do a better job than academic programs at preparing people to return to society. “This definitely prepares you for reentry,” Wood-Sims says. “The network that comes with this is irreplaceable.”

She adds that TRAC teaches other things you can’t learn in a classroom. Earlier in the spring, she watched as the women pushed themselves to finish the rebar carry. “Veronica didn’t want to do it, but she still did it. Brittany was about to puke, pushing her limits physically,” she says. “It’s a physical thing, but it’s also so mental to have to overcome something. That type of skill, you get it through pushing through things. And that’s going to be valuable when you get out because you know that you can do it, you know?”

This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The Fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to postsecondary career and technical education.

News & views

At the end of September, Ashland University filed a lawsuit in federal court attempting to stop the Education Department from imposing a $6 million fine against the Ohio-based institution. In 2022, the Education Department claimed that the college had “improperly packaged” Pell Grant funding for incarcerated students based on the way it calculated the length of its semester.

Ashland has been a Second Chance Pell site since 2016. The college currently enrolls incarcerated students in 13 states and the District of Columbia and has educated around 3000 incarcerated students per year for the last three years. In the suit, Ashland said that the $6 million penalty imposed by the Education Department was “based upon arbitrary and capricious actions which amount to an abuse of discretion.”

++ Related: Molly Minta writes about Ashland’s tablet-based education.

++ Read more on law.com, which first covered this story.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

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