By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
Hayden Hamilton is 26 years old. In recent years he has obtained his G.E.D., a two-year degree in Welding Technology from WWCC, and will graduate this year with a certificate in CNC, writing computer numeric code for machining metal parts. He has maintained an overall GPA of 3.95 and works as a teaching assistant in the welding lab. In his free time he plays guitar and gives pep talks to guys like himself, encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunity to get an education.
He’s not just a WWCC student who’s excelling, he’s also an inmate at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), to which he came with just an eighth-grade education.
The relationship between WWCC and WSP goes way back, spanning the entire history of the school; in the college’s second year there were 125 inmates enrolled in classes.
Rob Jackson, who graduated from WWCC in 1990 and today is Associate Superintendent at WSP, is a part of that history.
He was born and raised in Prescott, the youngest of six children. At WWCC he was a Foundation Merit Scholar, then attended WSU. There he discovered that psychology was his calling, and he did an internship at WSP in the psych unit.
After earning a B.S. in psychology, in 1994 he returned to work at WSP, where he has remained ever since. He’s worked throughout the prison, is a second generation Department of Corrections employee, and in 2015 he became associate superintendent.
Through it all, he’s been a staunch advocate for his charges. “I try to help good people do great things,” he says. “There are a whole lot of folks incarcerated here that have made some bad choices and haven’t always had the best opportunities. Part of my job is ensuring that we touch those folks, so there’s less violence out on the streets and inside the walls, so there aren’t any more victims.”
“One of the best ways to reduce recidivism is education,” he continues, and the statistics bear this out. According to an exhaustive study of education in the prison system done by the Rand Corporation in 2013, inmates who participate in educational programs while incarcerated are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison, and are far more likely to find a job after their release. The study also found that every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly five dollars in re-incarceration costs in the first three years after an inmate is released.
“I can’t say enough about the great WWCC people who teach our students,” says Jackson. “They do amazing work.”
He’s talking about people like Brent Caulk, WWCC’s Dean of Corrections and himself a 1978 graduate of WWCC; like Shareen Knowles, who teaches basic skills courses and helps inmates get their GEDs; like Kathy Farrell-Guizar, who works to help inmates with their re-entry into society and into higher education.
Knowles is a Basic Skills and GED Instructor who has been teaching at WSP for twenty years.
“Many of my students carry with them a feeling of ‘I can’t’ that is really hard to overcome,” she says. “I try to help them experience some success so they start to feel that they can. They are students with a few extra challenges to overcome, but they have amazing abilities to persevere and keep trying.”
Monty Baldomino, a 28 year old from Pasco, is one such student. He’s working on a degree in business, studying English, accounting, math, business law, and economics. After his release from WSP he plans to attend WWCC and get an additional degree in carpentry, hoping for a career in construction management.
Welders and carpenters coming out of the programs at WSP are likely to find good jobs. Caulk meets regularly with potential employers like the shipyards and the carpenters’ union. “They’re telling me that if a guy has the skills and a good work ethic they’ll hire him” he says, “because everybody needs help right now.”
How do you learn a good work ethic while incarcerated? “I like to involve myself in positive leadership” says Hamilton. “I give a speech regularly to new inmates, at their orientation. I talk about my struggles, my education, what I’ve gotten out of it. I let them know that they’re in the best facility, as far as the education programs offered by Walla Walla Community College.”
“And I work in the welding shop, as the instructor’s assistant. I get paid at the prevailing wage of 42 cents an hour. It’s not much, but honestly, I would do it for free. I love to teach, to hold that leadership position, and I feel very privileged to be able to have that opportunity.”
Baldomino has his own strategy. “I try to stay close to the inmates that are doing the education programs,” he says, “because I want to be around like-mindedness. We do homework together and talk about what we’re studying. I’m tired of breaking the law and coming to prison. That isn’t a life. And I appreciate this opportunity to let people know about the positive things we are doing here.”
The STAR Project was founded in 2004 and serves people with felony convictions in Walla Walla and Columbia Counties who are incarcerated at WSP. STAR staff and volunteers provide pre-release counseling and post-release case management, as well as housing and employment assistance.
When people leave prison they often have no official form of identification, large legal fees, civil legal matters they were unable to address while inside and no access to health care. They also are frequently required to stay in communities where they don’t have a solid support network. STAR helps with all of this.
Kathy Farrell-Guizar is the STAR transitions specialist, as well as a WWCC instructor teaching college readiness courses.
She meets with inmates to fill out college applications, financial aid forms, scholarship applications, and class registration. Working with WSP staff, she tries to build a network of support for the client, both while incarcerated and at college once the inmate is released.
“This job is inspiring and heartbreaking,” says Farrell-Guizar. Describing her clients at WSP she says, “Some of their experiences have been so traumatic that it’s very difficult for them to envision anything beyond bare survival. Low self-esteem, loneliness, being marginalized, addiction, these are things that contribute to recidivism. Most of the people I work with have not come from reasonable backgrounds. We put a lot of emotional energy into trying to help individuals who are hurting.”
WSP Success Stories
At WSP WWCC offers three primary groups of instruction, taught by a total of 43 tenured and adjunct faculty. 700-900 students per year are enrolled in these programs:
GED – this is mandated for every inmate who does not already have a GED or a high school diploma
WSP led the state correctional system the last 2 years in earned GEDs
In fiscal year 2016 – 106 GEDs were awarded, and 142 in fiscal year 2017
Vocational certificates – the following certificates are offered:
CNC Operator (computer numeric controlled machining)
Auto body repair
Building Maintenance Technology
In fiscal year 2017 WSP students earned 325 certificates spread across eight programs
Business two-year degree
Welding two-year degree
In fiscal year 2016 WSP students earned a total of 17 degrees, and 18 in fiscal year 2017