Clark Educates Behind Bars

By Liepa Bračiulytė in Life

Douglas Helmer teaches Small Business Basics  at Larch Corrections Center. Clark professors  teach inmates skills that will help them find a  job after their release.  (Photos Courtesy of Douglas Helmer)

Most Clark students visit campus at least once a week for their classes.

However, about 150 graduates last year never came to campus—not because they took online classes, but because they were inmates at Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt.

Washington State Department of Corrections pays Clark to educate inmates at the Larch Corrections Center. According to the Washington State DOC website, Larch Corrections Center is a minimum-security prison, which houses around 480 offenders that will be released within 4 years.

All offenders at the correction facilities without a high school diploma are required to complete their GED, which is taught by a Clark instructor, said Genevieve Howard, dean of Workforce, Career & Technical Education. Inmates may later choose to continue their education by completing the Automotive Basics or Small Business Basics program.

“There are certain jobs you can’t have as a convicted felon,” Howard said. “Small business is relatively attractive to a lot of the guys up there because they don’t have to tell anyone that they have been in the prison system.”

Last year, Howard knew an inmate at Larch who committed a murder at around 20 years of age and has been incarcerated for almost 30 years. He was going to be released in 6 months.

“The man was terrified,” Howard said. “He had not been in a grocery store for 30 years. The internet was not around.”

Job skills and life skills classes help prepare such inmates to the real world. Inmates leave the job skills class with a resume and some knowledge of how to find a job.

Like most prisons, every offender has a job within the facility, Howard said. The Larch inmates work eight hours a day for “way below minimum wage, like 30 cents an hour.” The money may be used to buy commissary items.

“Trust me, no one’s living well. It’s a prison, after all,” Howard said.

However, “time goes faster when you’re busy,” said Howard. Providing jobs to inmates helps keep the atmosphere calm and in order. Also, it’s cheaper for the state to have inmates working than to hire people for the same job, Howard said.

While DOC’s main mission is to keep everything in order and make sure no one is breaking the rules, Clark’s mission is to support educate them, Howard said. “We try to be as supportive as possible and treat them like humans,” she said.

However, working at a corrections facility is not for everyone, according to Howard.

“You definitely know that you’re in a correctional environment,” Howard said. “You have to get buzzed into the gate. You have to have an escort.” Guards walk around the facilities to do headcounts and make sure everything’s in order.

Director of Education at Larch Corrections Center Rhianna Johnson said, “You have to carry a radio everywhere you go. You have to sign in and out wherever you’re at.” Working at Larch is more difficult than at campus because of the extra procedures and regulations. There is no cell service at the facilities.

“It’s very remote. It’s on a mountain in the middle of logging roads,” Howard said.

At the Clark campus, professors often use Youtube, Canvas, and other websites to aid teaching and students do all their research online. But at Larch, there is no Internet. Professors or Work Study students must find the research information on their own time and bring it to the inmates on a flashdrive or some other device, Howard said.

Despite the different environment, “The outcome and the course content is the same as it is on campus,” Howard said.

Douglas Helmer, who teaches the Small Business Basics program, said, “The students are very attentive, and for the most part, they don’t give me too much of a problem.” Working at Larch has helped him be more direct with his teaching.

Helmer said, “We want to make sure that when they leave here, they have the ability to get back on their feet and hopefully not do the same things that landed them here to begin with.”

“They tend to like being at Larch because they do have a little more freedom,” Howard said. For example, inmates can leave the facilities with correctional officers. “If they do something out of bounds, they know that they can be shipped somewhere else where it could be worse.”

The inmates have a graduation ceremony in caps and gowns at the correction facilities the day after Clark campus students have it. President Bob Knight speaks and many of the Board members visit, Howard said. A lot of the men “have had little to no success,” and being granted a certificate is “kind of a big deal for a lot of them. It gets really emotional.”

“It’s one of my favorite days,” Howard said. “It’s such an accomplishment.”

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