Portland State launches pathway toward a college degree for women serving time at Coffee Creek prison

Nestled in the heart of Oregon’s only women’s prison, a meeting space for the RubiconGPS group is filled with books and ornamented with welcomes in many languages. Each seat is adorned with the day’s info-packet and a simple call to order kicks off the meeting.

Had the path to the room not required multiple security checks and an assigned escort, it would be hard to guess the group meets behind bars.

RubiconGPS is a group of more than a dozen adults in custody advocating for access to educational opportunities while serving their time at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. Many of them hope to use a future college degree to start their own businesses or give back to the community through social work or advocacy work.

In an effort to change lives through higher education, Portland State University has been offering classes to men and women incarcerated at several correctional facilities in Oregon, including Coffee Creek. But this fall, PSU’s University Studies program plans to launch a course where Coffee Creek women can earn four credits in science, four credits in arts and letters and three credits in writing — similar to a PSU freshman inquiry course — to set a foundation for a college degree.

Women in this all-female facility are considered minimum to medium security prisoners who are serving time for a range of crimes such as theft, assault and murder. 

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students are one of the biggest inclusion and equity problems universities face, said Deb Arthur, associate professor with PSU’s University Studies Program and founder of the Reverse the Pipeline program, which helps provide educational opportunities for women who are serving out their sentences.

Although students are hungry for the opportunity to grow and receive an education, only 4% of formerly incarcerated students receive their degrees, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative. A college degree reduces the recidivism rate, but Portland State’s drive to expand educational opportunities spans beyond that, Arthur said.

“It's about finding that self actualization,” she said. “So just like all of our students at PSU, where we try to provide critical thinking skills and communication skills, and all these things that enhance their life experience, that also applies to the people inside correctional institutions who deserve that opportunity.”

Sitting around the Coffee Creek group’s boardroom at a recent meeting, which doubles as a multi-purpose room, RubiconGPS President Danielle Cox recalled her educational journey. She said taking her first Inside Out class — a course held in prison that brings together incarcerated students and campus-based PSU students — changed something for her.

“I took something away from that class I couldn’t get sitting on my bed. There’s something bigger out there for us,” she said. “That is something that needs to be fostered in every woman, because we are getting out of Coffee Creek at some point and we need to be better for our communities, we need to be better for ourselves and we need to be better for our families.”

Thanks in part to the group’s involvement, access to education to Coffee Creek will be a little easier come fall when the new PSU course begins.

Metamorphosis

The Coffee Creek freshman inquiry-like course — a 15-credit, 3-term program called Metamorphosis — will start on Oct. 1 under the umbrella of PSU’s Reverse the Pipeline program. Twenty women plan to enroll in the course, which is also open to PSU students on campus.

“PSU organizes the freshman year in this really creative and innovative way where we meet all the first-year general education requirements through a yearlong interdisciplinary course that follows a theme,” Arthur said. “Our theme is metamorphosis.”

The course will look at the process of change in human culture, she explained.

“How do we envision and experience transformation within ourselves, within our communities and within the world?” Arthur added.

The fall term will focus on personal transformation, the winter term will consider how communities change and grow and the spring class will look at how we shape and interact with the world.

“All the content will help us have a richer understanding of equity and diversity and social justice; have better communication skills; develop critical thinking skills; have a sense of ethical and social responsibility,” she said.

Sarah Martin, a woman incarcerated at Coffee Creek, hopes to take the new class and use it to work toward a bachelors of science in sociology.

“My excitement is for my two kids,” Martin said. “I want to show them that despite whatever happened to mom in this situation, anything good or bad, we can succeed.”

She’s taken an Inside Out course at Coffee Creek and a correspondence course, but PSU’s new program will open a pathway for her degree and allow her to make measurable progress.

Wenona Rossiter, another prospective student incarcerated at Coffee Creek, wants to get a degree in business, but still needs to earn her introductory credits.

“It’s a first step in a long journey,” Rossiter said. “I’m looking forward to just starting my secondary education finally after a long time.”

Offering educational opportunities and a pathway to success is part of the broad vision of PSU’s Reverse the Pipeline program.

“We want to have, ideally, a seamless pathway where we're offering education inside for people who, upon release, are welcomed to PSU, supported in admission, and then supported in continuing on and getting their degree,” Arthur said. “They're very excited to continue at PSU. We really need to be here for them; we need to provide that pathway and make it accessible. We're selling ourselves short if we don't.”

Future plans

Looking forward, Arthur hopes to offer a pre-baccalaureate certificate at Coffee Creek if the Metamorphosis class goes well.

“We think it's really important for women to have a microcredential,” she said, of the pre-baccalaureate certificate. “There’s a lot of power in being able to say ‘I accomplished this.’”

The certificate could stand alone or be part of a larger degree program.

But Arthur said they’re still trying to gather enough funding to both pay for the new class and further expand programming. They’ve developed a relationship with the Portland State University Foundation to fundraise for tuition and class supplies.

“I am really excited by and passionate about this idea that PSU could offer a stronger, more robust educational program inside incarceration facilities,” Arthur said. “It's so integral to the mission of Portland State.”

Story by Katy Swordfisk
Video and homepage image by Peter Simon