Three Washington community colleges have been chosen for a pilot program using federal funding to expand college courses in prisons.

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In what one advocate called a “tremendous shift” in lawmakers’ attitudes, three Washington community colleges will soon be offering federally funded college classes in prison.

In the mid-1990s, Congress banned the use of Pell Grant money to fund college degrees in prison. In 1995, state lawmakers followed suit, forbid the use of state money for postsecondary education in prison, with the exception of community-college courses teaching vocational skills.

But now, an Obama administration pilot program will offer funding for 135 inmates in Washington to pursue associate degrees while behind bars.

“Where there was a vacuum of support, suddenly it’s recognized as a national issue,” said Tanya Erzen, director of a privately funded prison-education program.

The announcement signals “the understanding that education is really a key to helping people who have been incarcerated reintegrate with our communities,” said Stephanie Delaney, dean of extended learning at Seattle Central College.

Currently, 140 women at Washington Corrections Center for Women are enrolled in classes through the nonprofit Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound (FEPPS), which Erzen directs and which partners with Tacoma Community College.

The new funding will pay for 60 inmates at the two women’s prisons in the state — the corrections center in Gig Harbor, and the Mission Creek Corrections Center in Belfair — to take associate degree classes through Tacoma Community College. The college will work in partnership with FEPPS.

The federal pilot program will also pay for associate degree classes for 63 men at Monroe Correctional Institution, through courses offered by Seattle Central College in partnership with the nonprofit University Beyond Bars; and for 12 men to take classes at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, through Centralia College.

Currently, 123 men are enrolled via the privately funded program at the Monroe prison, Delay said. The new federal funding will allow the Monroe program to expand.

The three Washington colleges are among 67 colleges and universities nationwide chosen to participate.

“This is about giving people who have paid their debts to society a meaningful second chance,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in a statement.

In a release, the Obama administration said the program builds on its commitment “to create a fairer and more effective criminal-justice system, reduce recidivism and combat the impact of mass incarceration on families and communities through educational opportunity.” Nationwide, 12,000 inmates will be enrolled in Second Chance Pell.

Erzen, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, said it’s unclear how many of the women studying now through FEPPS will be eligible; the program may be limited to inmates who are likely to be released within five years from enrolling in coursework.

But Erzen said it’s important to include inmates with long sentences. “The best programs have a mix of students,” she said. “The way these programs work is to build a culture of college” inside the prison walls, she said, and inmates with lengthy prison sentences are more likely to help build such a culture, promoting study skills and offering leadership.

This spring, four women at the prison graduated with associate degrees. Next year, between 15 to 20 women are on track to earn their degrees, Erzen said.