January 20, 2016

Freedom through Education:  The importance of bringing college education to the women in our prisons. 

The power of education to transform lives is familiar to Rotarians.   We see this value manifested daily in the work we do and support.  This week’s program seeks to explore the impact of education on the women of our community who are imprisoned.  

The United States currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world – an alarming trend that brings with it huge societal and financial costs. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, and African-American and Native-American women are disproportionately represented in the prison population.  Most of the women in prison have never finished high school, which makes them especially vulnerable to re-incarceration.

Our first speaker, Tanya Erzen (full bio below), is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Puget Sound, and is the Executive Director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS). Tanya will help us understand how providing college education to incarcerated women works to change these bleak trends.

For instance, according to a 2013 Rand Corporation study, those who go to college while incarcerated are 45% less likely to return to prison than those who do not.  Reducing re-incarceration saves our country significant money, increases public safety and changes prisoners’ lives.  For every $1 invested in education in prison, taxpayers save $2 in re-incarceration costs.  Even more compelling is that $1 million spent on incarceration prevents an estimated 350 crimes, whereas $1 million spent on education programs prevents an estimated 600 crimes.  

While Tanya Erzen will help provide an overview of the FEPPS program and of how educating imprisoned women is good for prisoners, prison environments, and our communities as a whole, our second speaker, Autumn Curtis (full bio below), a former student in the FEPPS program, will share her experience at a more personal level.  Going to college was not always a given for Autumn, but after starting her classwork while in prison as part of the FEPPS program, she successfully completed her Associates of Arts degree and is now an undergraduate student at the University of Washington. 

Please join us to welcome these two speakers and to learn more about how education does promote freedom and opportunity to the imprisoned members of our community. 


Tanya Erzen is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Puget Sound and the Executive Director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a non-profit that provides a college education for incarcerated women in Washington.  She is the author of three books, and will publish God in Captivity: Punishment and Redemption in America’s Faith-Based Prisons about the role of religious ministries in prisons and the conservative movement for prison reform in 2016.   Her writing has appeared in the Nation, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Salon and various academic journals.  She was a 2013 Soros Justice Media Fellow from the Open Society Foundations and is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, the American Association of University Women, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.  

Autumn Curtis lives in Seattle and is an undergraduate student at the University of Washington.  She graduated from Bellevue College with an Associates of Arts degree in June 2015.  Although going to college was always her dream as a young person, it was something that did not seem within reach for many years. Just a little over three years ago, Autumn was released from custody after serving seven years at Washington Corrections Center for Women.  While serving her time, she took college classes from FEPPS, and she now speaks widely on in the importance of college for women in prison.