Graduates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville pose for a group photo after the GED graduation ceremony on May 3. (Photo provided by Coffee Creek Correctional Facility)

WILSONVILLE – In many ways, it was like any other graduation ceremony. 

Several dozen graduates strode into a large room wearing robes and tasseled caps. “Pomp and Circumstance” played from a speaker. Dozens of friends, family members and teachers sat in the audience, clapping and cheering and flipping through the program to see an outline of the day’s festivities. 

But it was also clear this ceremony in May was different than others in Oregon this spring. 

The 34 graduates were all incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. They wore sneakers and blue and denim uniforms under their robes. Fellow prisoners and peer tutors attended the event in the same clothes, as their loved ones from outside factored in the time it would take to go through security before entering the minimum-side dining room and finding a seat.

Multicolored leis hung around the graduates’ necks and paper butterflies decorated the lectern at the front of the room. The theme of the ceremony was “Every flower blooms in its own time.” 

More than 2,570 adults in Oregon custody – 21% of all state prisoners – do not have a high school diploma or equivalent, according to May data from the Oregon Department of Corrections. That includes about 200 prisoners or 23% of the population at Coffee Creek.

Each of Oregon’s 12 prisons offers GED classes. But before the pandemic, only 700 prisoners statewide were enrolled in them, said Donna Lewelling with the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. It oversees these programs and provides technical assistance and professional development for the instructors. But when COVID hit, participation dropped to 370 students as facilities had to isolate prisoners, social distance, restrict visitors and more. 

Though enrollment has since increased – up to about 600 now – officials don’t expect it to return to pre-pandemic levels. Prisoners from two facilities that closed due to budget cuts were moved, and the number of instructors decreased. There are also fewer prisoners due to then-Gov. Kate Brown’s commutations of thousands of sentences in 2022. 

Officials hope to expand educational options and support for those in prison pursuing an education, but less than a quarter of Oregon prisoners who don’t have a high school diploma or equivalent are on track to earn one. State officials said funding is the biggest hurdle to addressing this gap, though they did not know how much would be needed to fill it.

Earning a GED helps parolees, the prison system and broader communities. About 95% of state prisoners nationwide are released, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Research shows educated parolees are more likely to find employment, sustain stable housing, earn higher wages and contribute to the economy. It also makes them less likely to recommit, and it makes conditions in prison safer, too.

Degrees also help build confidence, something officials emphasized during the ceremony.

“This is your time and your chance to celebrate,” Nichole Brown, superintendent of Coffee Creek, told the graduates. The facility, with nearly 870 women in custody, is Oregon’s only all-female, adult prison, and its May ceremony was the first in-person event of its kind in three years. 

Officials called each person up individually and shook their hands. Students hugged their teachers and tutors, who whispered “congratulations” and “I’m so proud of you.” 

As it ended, staff instructed them to move their tassels from the right to the left, “so it’s closer to your heart,” and an employee announced: “I present to you, the Class of 2023.” The graduates glanced around at each other with smiles and questioning looks on their faces before tossing their caps into the air. 

“No one can take the GED away from you,” Brown told them. “No one can take the certificate you earned away from you.”

Getting to the finish line

The General Educational Development certificate is the high school equivalency diploma. To earn a GED, students have to pass math, social studies, science and language arts tests.

The Oregon Department of Corrections, Higher Education Coordinating Commission and community college partners work together to offer these courses. Prisoners are tested for reading upon entry and automatically put on a waitlist for classes at their facility, depending on their level of education. Literacy classes for prisoners who read below the eighth-grade level are mandated by the state, but the GED is not.

For the women celebrating at Coffee Creek in May, many thought they’d never make it that far. Individuals spoke to the audience one by one about the challenges they’ve faced in earning an education and how they pushed through. Some grew up in foster care. Others were kicked out of middle or high school. Some overcame addiction, and others struggled with crippling self-doubt. 

Nearly every one of them said it wasn’t until they had support from a peer tutor or instructor at Coffee Creek that they believed they could do it.

Lladira Beas was one of those students.

Beas moved around a lot when she was a child, relying on food stamps and basic necessities from schools. The 44-year-old told the Capital Chronicle she liked learning, but she got into a lot of fights and was eventually kicked out. 

“I’ve always felt stupid,” Beas said. She tested well, she added, but never did the work. 

She continued on with her life, got married and had children, without a diploma. After the death of her son, she said she overdosed nearly a dozen times. 

Beas was brought into custody on drug-related charges in 2021. She started the GED program that October but said she didn’t think she’d get it done. Her first five months were spent learning from printed-out lesson packets during COVID isolation.

It was her teacher at Coffee Creek, Ellen Nunez, who cheered her on. “She made me feel like I could do this,” Beas said. “She made me feel like I was smart.”

Since earning her GED, Beas completed her test for Coffee Creek’s Eyeglass program, which teaches students about eyeglass recycling and gives them a chance to earn industry certifications and gain hands-on lab experience. She also became a peer tutor and is working on an associate’s degree in writing through Portland Community College.

“My daughters told me they’re proud of me,” she said, wiping away tears. “That’s the first time they’ve said that in a long time.” 

Sober, educated and nearing release, Beas is excited about her future.

“I’m okay,” she said, letting out a breath. “I’m going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay.”

The pandemic effect

Earning a GED is hard enough in prison – a space not originally intended for education. It takes an average of 18 months for someone in the general population to complete the tests and 20 months for someone who is incarcerated. 

COVID made it harder, cutting the number of incarcerated students on track in half.

Prisoners were isolated. Class sizes shrank to allow for social distancing. For a time, instructors couldn’t enter facilities. Tests couldn’t be taken as often since they require in-person supervision. 

One Coffee Creek graduate told the audience that she’d completed every test but one when they went into lockdown. She waited a year before she could take her final test in the brief two-week 2021 summer window when restrictions were loosened. 

It wasn’t until the spring of 2022, when Oregon prisons removed COVID restrictions more permanently, that the number of GED students started picking up again.

The same dip was seen across Oregon’s general population. Lewelling of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission said the number of GED testers outside prison also dropped by nearly half at the start of COVID and has bounced back significantly, but not to pre-pandemic levels. 

They don’t expect it will, at least not anytime soon.

At this point, the key to increasing that number again, Lewelling said, is time. “We have to give the students some time to make sure that they’ve got everything in place.”

Expanding education in prison

Oregon officials have been working for years to increase state funding and community partnerships, bring on more instructors, peer tutors and special education experts, and more, in order to expand educational opportunities for prisoners.

Tracie Hightower with the Department of Corrections said the state is focusing now on increasing online options, especially for adults needing help with basic literacy and math. Hightower is optimistic about the Senate Bill 1522 pilot program, passed by state legislators in 2022, which is testing the success of adding employees at prisons who help with online courses and strengthen college partnerships.

Oregon lawmakers also considered several bills this session that would allow incarcerated students to have more educational options, and for the state to have more oversight. 

Senate Bill 270, for example, which was signed into law in June, will allow prisoners to more easily access academic programs at any community college in the state, any distance learning program or any other higher education program that’s eligible. And Senate Bill 269, which passed both the Oregon House and Senate, would require the state Department of Corrections and Higher Education Coordinating Commission to work more closely on policies and strategies to educate adults in custody. 

Federal initiatives will also help. The Pell Grant, which provides federal funding for students to pursue higher education, is available again to prisoners for the first time in decades. In 1994, Congress adopted a bill authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden that banned people in prison from having access to federal Pell Grants. In 2021, the ban was lifted. 

These efforts will give adults in custody who have a diploma or GED the chance to further their education if they wish, as well as the financial support to do so. Meanwhile, the state can work on increasing funding, physical space for classes and encouraging more prisoners to take the GED. Some are already pursuing two- and four-year degrees; some are tackling graduate courses and earning trade certificates.

When speaking with the Coffee Creek graduates, Karen Paez with Portland Community College, told the women their opportunities might be limited and there will be things that make them question themselves.

“You’re creating a foundation for your future. You started this (education), you chose it because you knew you were worth it,” she said. “There’s education beyond this point, and (we’re) here to support you.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She covered education for the Statesman Journal for more than seven years and was the co-founder and lead of the Salem Storytellers Project. She was an Investigative Reporters and Editors Fellow in 2021 and remains an IRE mentor and member of the Education Writers Association. She was named a 2022 EWA Reporting Fellow and published an in-depth series that summer on prison literacy programs. She is a graduate of Willamette University, where she majored in politics and French. Find her on Twitter @NataliePateGwin.