Josefina’s father was murdered three months before she was born. When she was 12 she started getting involved in drugs and gangs. She dropped out of the seventh grade. Then, at 15, she was arrested for her involvement in the murder of a 13-year-old boy.
Currently in the middle of a 15-year sentence, Josefina lives at the Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, Oregon. During the past few years, her life — and her view of her life — has changed dramatically.
Stories like Josefina’s highlight the transformative potential of educational opportunities for incarcerated students, a population that often has limited access to higher education. PSU is in the process of expanding these opportunities for incarcerated Oregonians.
“For the first three or four years I was in the same mindset,” says Josefina. “I still kind of wanted to live the same life.”
Everything changed in 2015 when her victim’s mother reached out to tell her that she forgave her.
“My whole life started to progress just from that,” she says. “I wanted to live for my victim and be a positive influence. I started going to school, and I started wanting something for myself like a career.”
Since this turning point, Josefina has been unstoppable in pursuing her education and career goals.
In 2017, she became a Certified Recovery Mentor, and last year she became the first youth in Oregon Youth Authority history to become a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. With this tremendous accomplishment, she’s discovered a passion for counseling people in recovery.
“I really like helping others because I was there, and I know how it is,” she says.
After finishing her associate’s degree at Portland Community College, Josefina is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University and is slated to finish her degree in March 2021.
“I knew that I wanted to further my education in criminology and criminal justice because of my background,” says Josefina. “My classes not only helped me understand why I was the way I was in my teen years, but also helped me better understand the people I work with as a drug and alcohol counselor.”
While Josefina says her first term at PSU was scary at the beginning, she felt supported by her professors. “I saw that the professors actually really care about what they do and they're willing to help,” she says.
Her PSU classes give her a sense of connection with the outside world.
Courses in criminal behavior, psychology and sociology have also helped Josefina learn more about herself and her history. She learned that her childhood lacked a number of protective factors that are known to help prevent criminal behavior.
“Growing up I always wondered where I went wrong,” she says. “Utilizing the information from these classes I definitely see there were things that were going on that were not normal, and I was able to understand where I detoured in my life.”
Her coursework has also informed her plans for the future. Eventually she would like to direct a program that helps adults or juvenile offenders leaving incarceration, to help them access jobs, get connected with drug and alcohol counselors and transition specialists or find a place to stay.
In preparation for this goal, she is currently in the process of applying for PSU’s Master of Social Work program and has already completed a minor in business. “It will help me solidify the plan that I have for the program that I want to be able to run one day,” she says.
The power of potential
Deborah Arthur was a criminal defense lawyer for 10 years before coming to teach University Studies at PSU 17 years ago. Since then, Arthur has initiated a number of educational opportunities for youth and adults in detention facilities in Oregon, including teaching credit-bearing classes for young men at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility and creating a Juvenile Justice Senior Capstone in which PSU students facilitate workshops for youth in juvenile detention.
This year she expanded this work to Oregon’s only women’s prison, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.
”I knew that there was really nothing happening academically for the women at Coffee Creek and so that was really my next push: I wanted to bring higher ed to Coffee Creek,” says Arthur.
The pilot of a freshman inquiry class course ran last year. “I got my foot in the door, and I taught this really beautiful class fall, winter, spring,” says Arthur.
When the pandemic hit, Arthur wasn’t able to teach in person, and her students didn’t have access to computers. Arthur had to meet a staff member in the parking lot of the facility and exchange paper packets. Still her students persevered. “Almost all my students finished and got their 15 credits,” says Arthur. “That was really great.”
After the success of this pilot year, Arthur is committed to finding a way to continue the program for students at Coffee Creek.
“They’re really among the best students I've ever worked with because they're so hungry for it,” says Arthur. Funding from the Sunshine Lady Foundation will take last year’s students through the next two academic years — the program isn’t starting new students this year due to the pandemic — and the City of Wilsonville is paying for books and supplies for the program.
One reason this funding is so important is because incarcerated students have been ineligible for Pell Grants, federal grants for low-income students, since the 1994 Crime Bill was passed.
“There is really a lot of bipartisan support right now on the national level to bring Pell grants back,” says Arthur. She notes that the U.S. House of Representatives has already voted to lift the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students and the Senate could follow suit.
“What I've been trying to do is just find the funding to bridge us over because once Pell is back then all the students can access Pell and come to PSU,” says Arthur. “And it's great for PSU because there are some really really bright diverse students; I want them to come to us.”
Expanding access to higher education for incarcerated people has benefits that diffuse into the community. “It reduces recidivism, gives people different options — especially when working with women — and lets their families and their children see that college is an option,” says Arthur. “The ripple effect is profound.”