But Tanya Erzen said she's concerned about parts of the pilot program announced last month by the Obama administration.

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Last month, the Obama administration outlined a pilot program to offer Pell grants to prisoners, giving them the opportunity to get federal financial aid to take college classes while serving time.  That’s a change of heart that’s welcomed by the director of one of Washington’s few prison college programs.

“It’s an interesting time — there’s a lot of potential for positive change to happen,” said Tanya Erzen, executive director of Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS), a program that offers classes in the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Purdy. FEPPS is part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, based at Bard College in New York.

Congress passed legislation in 1994 that barred inmates from receiving federal aid for college. The Obama administration’s plan to offer Pell grants — aid for low-income students that does not have to be paid back — is controversial, and some members of Congress have said they will try to block it. Still, the idea that offering degrees behind bars could reduce the recidivism rate has gained momentum in recent years, backed by a study that suggests some privately-funded programs do just that.

Erzen, who is a professor at the University of Puget Sound, does have concerns about the way Obama’s pilot program is structured. For one, the program would allow for-profit colleges to offer distance learning in prison, she said. And while online learning might appear to be a great way to offer classes to offenders, Erzen thinks it’s far better to educate them in a traditional classroom setting. The give-and-take and personal attention in a small class, she said, has great value to people who are incarcerated.

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Being in a classroom “allows women to think of themselves as students and not just as somebody defined by their crime,” she said. “Part of that happens with the interaction with other students.”

She also hopes the programs picked for the pilot will allow offenders to earn four-year degrees, and will be run by educators. And she’s concerned that the program is limited to people who are eligible for release within the next five years; at Purdy, FEPPS has found that some of the best students, the ones most interested in changing prison culture to a culture of academic pursuit, are those serving longer sentences.

In June, FEPPS won a $100,000 award from the Washington Women’s Foundation, and Erzen hopes to use the money to expand prison education to the state’s only other women’s prison, Mission Creek Corrections Center in Belfair, a minimum-security facility. Erzen said women in the Purdy prison who are up for a transfer to Mission Creek sometimes get in trouble on purpose, so they can stay at Purdy and continue their educations. Erzen hopes offering classes at Mission Creek will prevent that from happening.