Question 1: Organization Mission Statement

Answer 1: The mission of the Prison Scholar Fund (PSF) is to provide education and employment assistance to empower justice-involved people to succeed and thrive in society while avoiding homelessness and the revolving door of reincarceration. We also advocate to increase access to opportunity for all incarcerated persons through education.


Question 2: Organization’s General Purpose

Answer 2: The Prison Scholar Fund was inspired by the reintegration success of its founder and CEO, Dirk van Velzen, and has served 138 incarcerated men and women who were committed to changing their lives through education. We believe in the power of rehabilitation over retribution. While Dirk was living behind the walls he saw first hand the potential of his fellow prisoners and the dearth of access to opportunity for people in carceral settings. Dirk was inspired to found the Prison Scholar Fund with his father, Ted, to help connect people in prison that are returning to their communities with the resources and opportunities to rebuild their lives. 


The Prison Scholar Fund fulfills its core mission through a series of initiatives targeting postsecondary education, workforce readiness, and digital equity for people as they transition back into their communities as well as while they are living in a carceral setting. In 2021, PSF launched a partnership with Coding Dojo to provide wraparound-support to people reentering the community to complete a full-stack web development designed to equip formerly incarcerated people with concrete, marketable skills. 


The criminal legal system in the U.S. disproportionately impacts communities of color — especially black males. BIPOC communities have simultaneously been largely cut off from the economic benefits of the tech revolution. PSF’s partnership with Coding Dojo directly addresses these systemic challenges by connecting disadvantaged individuals to opportunities that empower them to become the architects of their own destinies while promoting a sense of dignity and identity separate from their lived experience with the legal system.


To expand that work, The Prison Scholar Fund will employ a directly-impacted person of color to connect with prospective employers in the tech community. We believe that the people closest to the problem are often closest to the solution — while furthest from resources and opportunities. Centering the engagement work with corporations allows PSF to model the kind of independence and self-actualization that is possible for people who have been in conflict with the law, especially people of color. This role also emphasizes the importance of directly-impacted people and those with lived experience occupying leadership roles in the community of formerly incarcerated people seeking a second chance to participate as contributing — and equal — members of our society.


We believe that reentry begins at arrest. That perspective continues to inspire our work to connect people living behind the walls with educational opportunities and to advocate for changes in law and policy to transform prisons from institutions of punishment and marginalization to places of hope and new beginnings. PSF was a key partner in the successful campaign to restore Pell Grant eligibility to people living in prisons. Next year will mark the first Pell Grants offered to prisoners since the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, but the work to provide meaningful postsecondary education opportunities in prisons continues with pivotal questions of implementation, program design, and how to bridge the real difference between the level of funding provided by Pell and the true cost of an education.


In addition, PSF is focusing on equipping formerly incarcerated people with the everyday skills necessary to function effectively in digital society. Access to technology continues to be virtually nonexistent in many carceral settings — internet connectivity and access to information are perennially viewed as threats to “safety and security” in carceral spaces, so people who have been incarcerated often leave prison (especially after long sentences) with no familiarity with the digital tools essential to navigating the free world. In partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS), the Prison Scholar Fund’s Digital Equity program offers people reentering their communities skills training in the basics of different computer technologies (smartphones, tablets, chromebooks, laptops) and software applications such as working with email. Students who demonstrate an aptitude for programming (using coding to engineer systems) are provided with a pathway to our coding bootcamp, where PSF partners with Coding Dojo. The Prison Scholar Fund also provides culturally relevant skills training, soft skills development, and conflict resolution strategies.

In direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, PSF has grown to become one of the largest food distribution organizations in western Washington State while also providing financial literacy to support successful reintegration of our clients who have been directly-impacted by the criminal legal system. When governmental responses to the pandemic shut down access to educational programs, the Prison Scholar Fund stepped up to fill a need for our communities of (predominantly BIPOC) formerly incarcerated families by providing food security in deeply unsettling times. The first groups to be impacted by the pandemic were those families already living on the margins due to poverty and involvement with the criminal legal system. While our primary mission is education, we know that people can only learn and grow when their most basic needs are being met. This work has also helped the Prison Scholar Fund foster a sense of community amongst directly-impacted people seeking to rebuild their lives and the families who depend on them.


Question 3: Amount Requested

Answer 3: $40,000


Question 4: Requesting funds for what

Answer 4: General operating 


Question 5: Project Description 

Answer 5: The Prison Scholar Fund is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization serving people who have been directly-impacted by the criminal legal system. We believe we can create a more just and equitable society, while reducing crime, by connecting people who have been cut off from opportunities to a pathway to rejoin our communities as productive members of society. We accomplish these goals by supporting collegiate coursework by people living in prison with scholarships and equipping people who are reintegrating into their communities with basic digital literacy and a professional-level full-stack web development program to create a pathway to a sustainable career in the tech sector.


PSF currently has a single full-time employee. With general operating support from Medina we hope to expand the roles of our Director of Food Security (Terry Mowatt) and hire a formerly-incarcerated leader (James Vickery) as Director of Digital Equity to cultivate relationships with technology corporations to help connect our directly-impacted Coding Dojo graduates with career path employment opportunities. Lack of access to gainful, stable work opportunities is a key factor driving recidivism. We believe that the more people who have been system-involved who benefit from a second chance to rebuild their lives, the easier it will be to convince companies to offer opportunities to people living with an historical criminal conviction. PSF is dedicated to continuing to build a track record of success with formerly incarcerated people and foster a culture that reduces recidivism by increasing access to opportunity and ending discrimination based on an historical conviction.


PSF’s Coding Bootcamp provides full scholarship support — all expenses covered, including a living stipend — for justice-involved individuals residing in Washington State  to complete Coding Dojo’s Onsite Coding Bootcamp. The Coding Bootcamp is an intensive, full-time program that allows participants to master the fundamental building blocks of web and software development over a rigorous 14-week bootcamp. Since 2013, Coding Dojo has trained over 8,000 graduates using their hands-on, three-stack software development bootcamp.  Industry training is combined with career services support, which has resulted in a 95.3% job placement rate with an average starting salary of $72,325 for Coding Dojo alums. After graduation, PSF Scholars are also able to apply for the Microsoft LEAP apprenticeship for 16-weeks of on-the-job training.


PSF has a working board with members from industry and the directly-impacted community who take an active, hands-on role to help our organization realize its mission.


Question 6: What is the issue you are trying to address with this work?

Answer 6: The Prison Scholar Fund is moved to action by the belief that access to opportunity will allow people who have been in conflict with the law to live their lives with dignity and independence. PSF creates opportunities for economic self-sufficiency for justice-involved individuals, providing a critical employment pipeline for a population that has historically been systematically excluded from meaningful employment.  A lack of employment opportunity is a key factor contributing to recidivism. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.8% of released prisoners were rearrested within 3 years of release and 76.6% were rearrested within 5 years. More than half (56.7%) of these rearrests were in the first year after release. In Washington State, the overall 3-year recidivism rate for all people who are incarcerated for 2016 was 33%. 


There is an obvious and achievable solution to the revolving door of incarceration that has led the United States to having the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest incarcerated population.  Education, and the employment potential that it produces, has been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism.  In fact, gainful employment is one of the defining features of successful reentry. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics published in December 2021 found that one-third of formerly incarcerated individuals found no employment at all over four years post-release and, at any given time, no more than 40% of the cohort was employed. Formerly incarcerated people had an average of 3.4 jobs throughout the four-year study period, indicating that the jobs they were able to secure offered no security or upward mobility. Moreover, those who were able to secure employment earned far less than the general population.


Education for persons caught in the cycles of poverty perpetuated by the criminal legal system is a highly cost-effective investment that reduces crime. Research by the Department of Policy Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles concluded that education is almost twice as cost effective as incarceration. Additional research conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) found significant benefits to re-entry programs. Notably, WSIPP found that for every $1 invested in a correctional post-secondary education program, the state saved $19.74 in costs. Education and re-entry programs also have significant, positive intergenerational effects, benefitting both the communities and children of justice-involved people.


Question 7: Total annual budget for organization:

Answer 7: $1,211,089 (FY 22)


Question 8: Organizational Legal Name

Answer 8: The Prison Scholar Fund


Question 9: Name of Executive Director

Answer 9: Dirk van Velzen


Question 10: Primary Geographic Area

Answer 10: 

  • Clallam County 
  • Grays Harbor County 
  • Island County 
  • Jefferson County 
  • King County 
  • Kitsap County 
  • Mason County 
  • Pacific County 
  • Pierce County 
  • San Juan County 
  • Skagit County 
  • Snohomish County 
  • Thurston County 
  • Whatcom County


Question 11: What data, if any, is collected by the organization about the staff, leadership, board, and/or clients served?

Answer 11: The Prison Scholar Fund maintains records of the clients served for the purposes of evaluating our impact by race, sex, and geography. We also track metrics of success to help illustrate positive outcomes for individual clients as well as average observable changes achieved through our programs (e.g. the increase in salary and average salary of those formerly incarcerated persons who successfully complete the Coding Dojo program). PSF is committed to protecting the confidentiality of our clients who are system-impacted and marginalized. All data is anonymized unless a client specifically grants permission for PSF to highlight their story of success.


Data is vital to the mission and values of PSF because it helps us ensure that we are emphasizing the most efficacious interventions while demonstrating the value of second chances for people who have been in conflict with the law. We rely on Salesforces, the gold standard of CRM software, to track key data points about clients and community members who interact with our organization.


Staff at PSF use Time Doctor to track their time on various projects and tasks to evaluate their impact for the organization’s mission. We only have one full-time staff member at present, our CEO (Dirk van Velzen), so this is primarily a tool for him to help measure and balance his investments of time in the competing demands of organizational leadership.