Dept of Corrections Approves Internet Pilot Program for Inmates

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

GIG HARBOR – Education in Washington’s correctional facilities received a huge boost from legislators in 2019 when they approved a pilot project to explore providing secure internet access for incarcerated individuals.

As the Washington State Department of Corrections continues its work to improve public safety by positively changing the lives of those incarcerated in its care, access to secure internet removes a roadblock previously experienced by incarcerated students attempting to better themselves through online courses.

Earlier this month, ten students from the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) celebrated as the first class to be able to use the internet to help them graduate with a Web Development Certificate from Tacoma Community College.

The class typically takes about 12 months to complete; however, this class faced a unique set of challenges, which required increasing the length of the class to 18 months.

Dr. Sultana Shabazz, Director of Corrections Education at Tacoma Community College, commended the class for pushing through.

“Despite these challenges,” Dr. Shabazz shared, “your class has become the first in Washington State Corrections history, to have graduated using secured internet.” Dr. Shabazz went on to thank the Department of Corrections, Governor Inslee, and the State Legislature for allowing the pilot program.

The ceremony was a joyful expression of the hard work that the group had accomplished.

“I never thought while incarcerated, I could become a full stack web developer. Persistence has been key and our future is unlimited, as long as we continue to be persistent,” said Class Speaker Felicia Dixon.

The celebration has been a long time coming. In 2017, the Legislature voted to expand educational opportunities in the state corrections system to include associate degree programs. Then in 2019, they directed the department to develop a secure internet “proof of concept” –or pilot project—at one of its 12 facilities then produce a report, outlining:

  • A plan to further enhance postsecondary education degree opportunities and training to incarcerated adults through expanded partnerships between the community and technical colleges and DOC—including the costs and barriers associated with this effort; and
  • A plan for providing secure internet access across facilities to support this expansion, including associated costs and barriers.

WCCW was selected because it did not already have a dedicated education network. Each classroom was managed through a classroom server, creating far more challenges for Tacoma Community College, the education service provider, due to the need for updated hardware and infrastructure.

In DOC’s report on Use of Secured-Internet to Expand Postsecondary Education Opportunities to Enhance Public Safety (pdf), submitted to the Legislature on December 5, the department shared that while the pilot classroom took longer than expected to prepare the infrastructure for secure internet, the results of the project were extremely positive.

“The facility reported that students are able to take advantage of an in-browser code editor to research their projects and gain insight about classwork,” the report says. “They can collaborate on builds, see their code work, and experience para programming – where the whole class simulates a real world experience of having a group working together on the same project.

“Additionally, direct access to approved coding sites gives students access to relevant, up to date information on language for trouble shooting, self-corrections, and editing,” it says. “The students are excited to see how their work mimics what people do in the coding industry, while getting hands-on experience working in similar environments.”

“This has really been an equity issue,” Dr. Shabazz said to the graduates. “You are now entering the work force, not just with the same certificate as previous classes, but with a much more robust experience. . . And I have to add, aren’t we always saying that we need more women in STEM fields? And here today, we have 10 women who have become coders while incarcerated.”

Those who have previously graduated through WCCW’s program have held the same certificate, but not having access to secure internet meant that they were entering the workforce with less preparation than other students pursuing the same career path. Without access to secure internet, they would not be able to see in “real time” whether the code on which they were working was accurate.

The December graduating class members were uniquely qualified to speak to the difference in having access to internet, versus attempting to code without it. The first 10 months or so of their program, they had to do everything manually, without internet access. One graduate, Dominique Norris, explained that with internet access, there is a certain level of coding that already exists, called “pre-loaded code;” however, when working without the secure internet the process takes longer, requiring them to essentially start from scratch.

Further, she explained that having access to the approved coding sites allowed them to ask questions of others in the coding community when they had difficulties.

“Being able to see that you’re not the only one who has struggled with a particular challenge was a huge confidence builder,” Dominique said.

All in all, the project has been a success. DOC Cybersecurity reported there were no security breaches during the proof of concept and they have identified ways to streamline a future rollout.

As directed by the Legislature, the report provides a proposed timeline and associated costs of roughly $1.3 million to expand secure internet across all 12 correctional facilities in Washington.