Halfway through his prison sentence, Noel Vest realized he did not want the rest of his life to be like his past.
Inhumane conditions, windowless cells, and violence. For many people, movies and television shows portray an overwhelming sense of hopelessness in prisons. However, through programs that offer college courses on the inside, hope can be found.
Vest (’13, ’16 MS Psych.), now a psychology doctoral student at Washington State University, knows this first hand. He was a habitual criminal in Nevada with 21 different charges ranging from drug convictions to identify theft. A little over three years into his seven-year sentence, he knew he needed a change.
In addition to attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Vest started taking courses through the College of Southern Nevada and found a thirst for knowledge.
Vest later had the opportunity to teach at Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility in Connell through Walla Walla Community College. He says seeing people like him, eager to learn, inspired him.
“My life just isn’t complete unless I’m giving back to the community,” he says.
Despite the complexities and underlying issues of the prison industrial complex, education programs are a factor in reducing recidivism, as well as violence within the prison, says Faith Lutze, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at WSU.
“The more mindful we are about creating environments and opportunities for people to advance their own well-being,” Lutze says, “we’ll reduce recidivism and have positive outcomes for our communities.”
Anna Plemons (’99 Speech & Hearing Sci., ’14 PhD English), an English faculty member at WSU, has also taught in prisons and still teaches courses, such as narrative nonfiction and introductory English courses, through the Lake Tahoe Community College incarcerated student program.
Plemons says she works with highly motivated and serious students who volunteer to take classes. However, as much as she thinks the programs are valuable, Plemons says she does not forget the context of why prisons grow so fast.
“There absolutely are issues of equity and justice that need to be addressed in the prison system, and I’m not confused about that at all,” she says.
There are also issues with the environment and architecture of the classrooms, says Plemons.
She recalls when she was teaching in a relatively nice room with moving chairs, no echoes, and a small observation window. Then, at one point during the class, they had to move to a room that felt more confined.
“It was the same students, same curriculum, and we just moved mid-class,” Plemons says, “and it just died.”
Taking courses can offer more than an education. It also helps with prisoners’ understanding of society and can reduce their biases, says Wesley Maier (’12 MA, ’18 PhD Crim. Jus.), criminal justice instructor at Walla Walla Community College.
Maier has taught several criminal law and criminology classes at Coyote Ridge. He says it was compelling to see the students learn about and reflect on the criminal justice system.
Maier says his wife, who also taught at Coyote Ridge, led a class where social issues were discussed. After the class, an inmate who was a white supremacist thanked her for the class and said his perspective of race had changed. The student said prior to the class, he did not see how biased and blind he was, and he realized his views were wrong.
A study from The Prison Journal found that 47 out of 50 states have at least one institution that offers a postsecondary education program for credit to incarcerated individuals. Vest believes education is one of the only definite resources people have after they are released.
“They can take away your right to live where you want to live. They can take away your right to get jobs. They can take away your right to volunteer at your kids’ school,” Vest says. “But they cannot take [your education] away from you. It is a tangible asset that you can use to better yourself when you get out.”