Monroe Correctional Complex inmates refine carpentry skills during class on Thursday, May 31.
Monroe Correctional Complex inmates refine carpentry skills during class on Thursday, May 31.

Gov. Jay Inslee visited the Monroe Correctional Complex on Thursday to see firsthand the skills inmates are learning to ease their reentry into the community.

Many are hopeful educational and vocational programs can reduce recidivism. Inslee joined a class, where half a dozen students were learning carpentry skills.

“It makes no sense for us to have these people here for years, get out, and then reoffend,” he said. “We want murders to be one-time murders, and then become carpenters, and that is a good vision statement for all of us.”

Washington State Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair accompanied Inslee on Thursday. The governor appointed him to the position in April 2017. MCC Public Information Officer Susan Biller said it was Inslee’s first visit, but Sinclair comes regularly.

As superintendent for the Washington State Penitentiary, Sinclair helped found the Sustainability in Prisons Project, which reduces operational costs of prisons by employing inmates while teaching them skills at the same time, according to the DOC. The work also offers relief from idleness and a chance to give back to the community.

Inslee said he was struck by the commitment from staff to help incarcerated individuals heal from issues with substance abuse and mental illness, and learn ways to cope and succeed in their life after prison. They want to see the inmates move on as much as the inmates themselves, he said.

Learning a job skill is a big deal, he said. Connecting with those opportunities changes the way the students see themselves and their future, Inslee said.

“As an ounce of humanity, you will see more hope from people who are in custody then you might think,” he said.

About 1,200 employees and officers manage the Monroe complex: the Washington State Reformatory, Twin Rivers, Minimum Security, Special Offender and Intensive Management units are spread across 365 acres. Nearly 2,400 male minimum, medium and maximum-security inmates are housed within the facility. 

MCC superintendent Mike Obenland has called it “a city within a city.”

The Washington State Reformatory was the first section to be built, back in 1910. A number of programs are in place, such as food service, an optical manufacturing lab, a print shop and on-site laundry, where inmates can learn a variety of skills.

Some also sew and support administrative services. Classes are offered through a partnership with another regional institution.

Dr. Wanda Billingsly said she had a long career in education before signing on as the Edmonds Community College Dean of Education at Monroe Correctional Complex seven months ago. A major factor in her decision was seeing students go through grades K-12, and not get the supports they needed to graduate.

She was referring to the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” where kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially students of color, are disproportionately “funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. They may be children with learning disabilities, or who have experienced abuse or poverty.

Billingsly said the students enrolled in the MCC courses come every day ready to engage; they take the opportunity seriously. She said coursework at the complex will soon include a carpentry apprenticeship program, where graduates are basically guaranteed a job when they get out.

“They know it’s going to totally change their lives,” she said.

Student Alexander Sharp, who many of his classmates refer to as their spokesperson, said everyone should have been there a week ago. Inside the large workshop they had a finished small home on display. He spoke of the achievement with pride.

“We are a group of individuals that come in and sit down as a team and a family,” he told Inslee. “We read the quote of the day, and we come together and we work, and we get the job done.”

The governor pointed to two important Washington policies he said align with the goals of the programs in Monroe. He said lawmakers passed legislation during the 2018 session that would make it so former inmates wouldn’t be weeded out of the running for a job just because they spent time incarcerated.

He also said staff is also challenged with helping people with long recoveries from mental illness — another cause for reoffending — while they are in custody. Last month he announced a five-year plan to overhaul how substance and mental health are addressed in Washington.

“We are substantially reforming our mental health system to make sure we do it in the right way, in the right place, at the right time,” he said. “This has to be part of that with this part of the population.”