Robert Ullman

When 32-year-old Torkeshia Moneake Johnson was booked into the King County Jail last October for residential burglary, robbery, and theft, the first and last thing on her mind was math.

A repeat offender and drug user with an eighth-grade education, Keshia, as she prefers to be called, was already calculating how much time she might face in lockup, away from her 14- and 10-year-old sons. What she wasn't thinking about was how to find the area of a parallelogram or the volume of a cube.

But that changed last November when Keshia signed up for a high school equivalency course. Twice a week, the program teaches incarcerated women the basic math, science, and language skills they need to pass a General Educational Development (GED) test to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. By all accounts, Keshia's transformation in the GED prep class was positively dramatic. Over a period of weeks, she became less angry, according to Alice Howey, one of the teachers. She spoke up in class more. She began asking questions and writing poetry. And in February, Keshia passed her GED exam.

"The class gave me confidence and structure," Keshia softly explains from behind the scarred glass window of the visitor's booth that separates us. It doesn't matter that she was tutored in the hallway, or that students were only afforded golfer's pencils to complete their work. Enthusiasm strengthens her voice when she speaks of the new skills she's gained. We could be in a job interview, if not for her bright red jail jumpsuit. "I learned that I'm good at writing and I'm able to express myself in a professional way," she says.

"It's an amazing shift from the woman we first met," adds Howey. "Her perception of herself as a scholar is entirely new. She helps other students and, overall, is just a model student."

But Keshia may be one of the last model students to grace the King County Jail—or, at least, one of the last female model students.

In late May, Literacy*Americorps—a subsect of Americorps that was funding the women's education program—was notified that its national programming grant wouldn’t be renewed, says Literacy*Americorps spokeswoman Elizabeth Rivera. And so on June 4, the organization notified volunteers that it was cutting off money. The program is now scheduled to end later this month, while the men's programming at the jail—which is funded by local community colleges—will remain intact.

"It's just not fair," Keshia says. "This is a stepping stone to get your life right. Women like me need this."

This isn't the first cut to women's programming in King County Jail in the last year. In 2011, the hours of women's educational classes were cut by more than half, while men's education actually increased.

"The women feel extremely discriminated against," Howey explains. "Men already get more education classes than us already... Women feel marginalized and let down. And as teachers, we feel helpless."

Jail officials and various King County representatives seem to agree that maintaining the women's access to education should be a priority. "It is extremely important to provide access to education for women in the criminal justice system," says King County executive Dow Constantine. "We will seek creative funding solutions despite these latest federal cuts."

After all, Constantine knows these programs decrease recidivism and increase educational pursuits—and job opportunities—after incarceration.

A study of more than 3,000 prisoners found that recidivism rates were 29 percent lower among incarcerated people who entered education programs than those who hadn't, according to a 2005 report released by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. In addition, participants "are more likely to be employed following release and have higher earnings than nonparticipants," the Justice Center reported. (More than 41 percent of the nation's incarcerated have less than a high school education, according to a 2003 report from the US Department of Justice.)

Kathy Lambert, chair of the King County Council's law and justice committee, says, "We're trying to get this backfilled as soon as possible."

But while rich in platitudes, none of the jail or King County representatives I spoke to had any plans or strategy to supplement the $12,100 loss in annual AmeriCorps funds—which was matched by the jail—despite the fact that the cut was announced to AmeriCorps teachers and jail supervisors nearly six weeks ago.

Claudia Balducci, director of the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, which manages the King County Jail, says she only learned the women's program was being cut last week. Balducci, who is also a Bellevue City Council member, agrees that "women should have access to education" and says the jail is "going to try and work within the logistics that we have to provide the best programming that we can."

Until last year, Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) funded, staffed, and ran all of the men's and women's educational programs in the King County Jail. This amounted to roughly 20 hours of class instruction a week in adult basic education, English as a second language, and GED prep courses for men, and a total of 10 class hours a week for women. Then, in June of 2011, the community college abruptly cut its women's programming and shifted all its resources to offering 25 hours of men's programming.

Why discriminate?

A spokeswoman for SCCC didn't return repeated calls for comment. But a professor speaking on the condition of anonymity explains that the decision had less to do with misogyny than simple dollars and cents. Men's programming reportedly earns more state and federal funding than women's. Men also greatly outnumber women in the jail—women make up only 10 to 16 percent of the roughly 1,100 inmate population—and men incarcerated for longer periods than women on average (24 days versus 12). All of this amounts to more completed hours of GED prep work and more successful tests for men's classes, which are two metrics for how the college garners funding. "The administration [at SCCC] couldn't justify giving the women those 10 hours," the professor said. "Women's classes were terrible for us—high turnover with fewer GED outcomes. And unfortunately, that's what the decision was made on: numbers and outcomes."

Whatever the reasoning, the fact remains that women are being nickeled-and-dimed out of education opportunities in jail.

"I still can't believe their decision-making skills," says Michael Hood, a volunteer who teaches a creative writing class in the jail that will not be affected by the cuts. "This isn't 1956. We've seen too many good outcomes from our women's classes, and it seems they're overlooking all of them."

No one at the King County Jail who I spoke with could provide numbers on how many men's GED diplomas were awarded last year after Literacy*AmeriCorps stepped in to salvage a slice of the women's programming abandoned by SCCC. There's no way to gauge if the increase in men's programming has been effective.

Howey and her co-teacher, Matt Metcalf, were hired to run the women's education classes. When not teaching, they organize an army of 20 volunteers to tutor both men and women in jail hallways.

And so they will be, right up until their last day of class on July 26. After that date, the only class available to women at the downtown jail will be one weekly creative writing class.

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Coincidentally, on July 26, Keshia will be transferred to the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor to begin fulfilling her robbery and theft sentence. She hopes to get out in January 2014 and continue her education to become a paralegal. "I think I've really got it together," she says. "I've got goals, which I've never really had before. I know what I want and what I need, and thanks to Alice and Matt, I know how to get to them." recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.