Question 1: Organization Mission
Answer 1: The Prison Scholar Fund is committed to providing educational opportunities, professional development, transitional support, and advocacy for those impacted by incarceration.
Question 2: Geographic Area, Communities, & Number of People Served Annually
Digital Equity: All of Washington State
Food Security: Most of Western Washington, except for a few counties on the Olympic Peninsula.
The Prison Scholar Fund serves the community of people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system — either directly through their lived experience or indirectly through a loved one whose incarceration and separation from the family impacts the entire family. Our community is predominantly low-income and historically disconnected from resources and opportunity — in many cases, incarceration has been a generational struggle, which PSF seeks to disrupt by recognizing the systemic causes of crime and poverty while connecting individuals with pathways to individual success and successful reentry. LGBTQ+ persons comprise a significant minority of our clientele — they are disproportionately impacted by incarceration, and face even greater hurdles as a population while reentering society due to lack of social and institutional support for queer and gender-nonconforming individuals. Approximately 56 percent of our clients identify as belonging to the BIPOC community.
Number of People Served Annually:
Clients Served Annually: 1,550
- Transition and Food security — 985
- Postsecondary education — 34
- Digital Literacy — 0
- Transition and Food security — 1,125
- Postsecondary education — 3
- Digital Literacy — 3
- Transition and Food security — 1,224
- Postsecondary education — 5
- Digital Literacy — 331
Question 3: Annual Organization Budget
Answer 3: $1,211,089 (FY 22)
Question 4: Support Category
Answer 4: Climate & Agricultural Justice: Food Sovereignty and Security
Question 5: How does your organization serve communities affected by inequity due to race and/or gender identity?
Answer 5: The Prison Scholar Fund (PSF) was inspired by the reintegration success of its founder and CEO, Dirk van Velzen, who has helped secure more than 200 scholarships for incarcerated men and women who were committed to changing their lives through education. 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 digital and financial literacy to support successful reintegration of our clients who have been directly-impacted by the criminal legal system.
We serve a community impacted by the criminal legal system in Washington State. Research from The Urban Institute has cataloged the breadth and depth of racial bias and inequality in the criminal legal system — we know that criminal justice reform is racial justice work. The Williams Institute at UCLA has similarly studied the disproportionate impact of the criminal legal system on LGBTQ+ individuals. Additionally, we know that incarceration is a marginalizing factor for women, especially women of color and those women who may be lower income — innocent women and children are often “collateral damage” when their loved one becomes system-involved.
PSF operates from a credible messenger model in all of our programs. We connect with clients in communities at highest risk by centering the lived experience of our staff who have encountered and overcome similar obstacles in their lives. PSF provides food security to formerly incarcerated people and their families reentering the community as well as digital navigation services to help people who have been in institutional settings reconnect with services and develop skills to succeed in our increasingly digital world. We also provide job training, including our premier Coding Bootcamp offered in partnership with Coding Dojo to connect system-involved students with training in full-stack web development and career services connecting them with sustainable employment in the tech sector here in Washington State.
Bottom line: Our work reduces racial and gender disparities by addressing the factors that drive those stark inequalities for people returning to the community after a period of incarceration and their loved ones. These problems remain a central source of marginalization for persons who identify as a member of the BIPOC community and for lower-income women, especially in rural communities.
Question 6: How is your organization accountable to the community being served?
Answer 6: The Prison Scholar Fund is led by members of the community we serve. We understand the real struggle of reentering society after a period of incarceration because our staff have had to do so. Through the credible messenger model, we are able to connect with clients who are in similar circumstances to our own lived experiences in the highest risk communities — this also allows us to be approachable by members of the community who view us as relatable and open to their feedback.
Seven of the 14 members of The Prison Scholar Fund board of directors are themselves system-impacted, or 50 percent of our leadership. Each staff person who has been hired has been directly-impacted as well. Our founder and CEO was incarcerated for 15 years; his challenges and successes inspired him to establish the PSF to help others in their transitions.
At PSF, we believe the community we serve isn’t limited to our clients, but includes the broader community in Washington collaborating with our organization to connect our system-involved clients with services and opportunities. Our access to top-notch education for formerly incarcerated persons is dependent on our ability to equip prospective students with the skill sets to succeed in such a program. We also rely on the tech sector for support finding sustainable employment for graduates of our training programs. If what we did didn’t work, we would have instant feedback from the business community — that needs candidates with solid skills who now lead crime-free lives.
Question 7: Describe how your organization addresses systemic gender and/or racial inequities in the Food Sovereignty and Security priority?
Answer 7: We believe everyone in the community of people who have been system-involved deserves to have their basic needs met. This foundational level of support allows us all to prosper as a community, and enables the individuals we serve to become the architects of their destiny. Our clients are usually confronting with multiple layers of marginalization, the stigmatization and barriers to success that come from a criminal conviction compounds the inequalities they already faced as members of the BIPOC community. Providing for the vital nutritional needs of at-risk people in our community helps those families know that they are welcome as members of our community. This connection directly reduces recidivism and makes our communities safer, more caring, and productive for everyone as they rejoin the social fabric.
Each year, Washington State receives thousands of individuals returning from correctional facilities (6,952 in FY 2021; 7,729, FY 2020; 8,178, FY 2019) on top of the thousands of other system-impacted individuals and their families already living in the community. These newly-released individuals face multiple, significant barriers as they seek to reestablish their lives including housing, employment, mental health, and substance abuse disorder needs. Post-carceral trauma and social disorientation often impede the returning citizen’s ability to navigate many basic life tasks such as how to find healthy food for themselves and their loved ones.
In the early stages of the COVID-19, food distribution to socially isolated populations, including formerly incarcerated people, emerged as a serious challenge. Northwest Harvest approached PSF to support its efforts to expand and improve deliveries of food to justice-impacted individuals who faced especially high transition hurdles caused by business closures and elevated unemployment levels. Over the past two years, PSF has been a key partner to Food Lifeline and other nutrition-focused nonprofits in providing food to justice system-impacted individuals and their families, serving over 1,200 families on a bi-weekly basis with fresh, healthy food products.
Racial justice is a core priority for our organization. PSF fills a vital gap focusing on underserved, largely BIPOC, community members facing food insecurity. PSF also emphasizes gender justice: Sixty percent of our clients are women — many of whom have been indirectly impacted by the criminal legal system through their loved ones. PSF receives in-kind contributions from sources such as Food Lifeline, NW Harvest, Emergency Food Network, GoPuff, Amazon Fresh, Expedia (Bon Appetit) and others, including limited distribution in partnership with King County Metro Access; in 2021, the value from these sources exceeded $1,040,243. Storage, packing, distribution, and staffing have remained a challenge, mainly facilitated with a volunteer workforce.
Food security provides a foundation to allow people returning home to their communities to focus on creating a new future. Too many justice-involved people face reincarceration due to a lack of access to opportunities and resources to move in a new direction.
For more information, please see PSF’s 2020 Food Security Report at bit.ly/OurImpact2020
Question 8: Please demonstrate how your organization reduces disparities and/or achieves more equitable outcomes by sharing an example of your work in action.
Answer 8: “For 12 years, I had three hots and a cot.” We hear this phrase a lot from clients who are returning to the community after periods of incarceration. It is incredibly difficult to successfully transition from the artificial, incredibly structured institutional setting of a “correctional facility” to the free world. Many people coming home are returning to broken families and communities that are not in a position to support them in their transition. Finding meals, much less nutritional options, is a very real struggle for many formerly incarcerated people — who must also balance the requirements of their supervised release with finding employment and navigating a world that might look very different from the one they were taken from years or decades before.
The Prison Scholar Fund believes in a needs-first approach to helping people rebuild their lives. We begin with connecting formerly incarcerated individuals with the means to address their basic needs: starting with nutrition security. PSF prioritizes hot meals that feel familiar to our clients — we have found through constructive feedback that some choice in meals also helps people transitioning back to the community feel a higher sense of personal agency and less dependency. Insofar as is possible, we source meals from sustainable sources — but the primary sustainability metric PSF is focused on is helping people who are reintegrating into society to become independent and self-sustainable, which continues to be a giant obstacle for returning citizens. From this bedrock, clients have the opportunity to grow and flourish.
In 2020, Marcus returned home at the height of the pandemic. He left prison with $40 from the Department of Corrections, a Greyhound bus ticket, and felt lucky that he was allowed to keep his jacket since he was released in the winter months. This was basically how he was expected to “transition” from the carceral setting that had poorly equipped him to succeed in the community. PSF began by ensuring Marcus had food on the table. After decades away from his family, he had few employment prospects and was returning to an unfamiliar and unstable environment. PSF offered Marcus support learning to navigate the digital world and training in how to access resources and tools online; he hadn’t seen a phone since the 1990s. When Marcus showed an aptitude for technology, PSF offered him more advanced training in program engineering, beginning with essential coding skills. We provided him a stipend to support his education as well as a laptop and smartphone, along with internet service while he was studying. At the end of his coding bootcamp, PSF worked closely with partners in the tech industry to find a sustainable employment opportunity using his new skills and continuing to grow as a new professional.
But journeys like this are only possible when individuals who have been in conflict with the law have the resources and opportunities to rebuild their life when returning to the community. That journey begins with food security — it’s very difficult for someone to learn and grow when they are hungry. Hunger also fuels a scarcity mentality, and we are all safer and healthier as a society when everyone feels welcome and connected to others.
How many hours did we spend on this? They ask:
Galen: 6 hours
Me: 6 hours
Question 9: Does your Organization do advocacy work?
Answer 9: Yes
Question 10: Please share with us a bit about your advocacy work this past year, and what your plans are for the next 6-12 months related to your advocacy work. We’d love to hear about your advocacy, learnings and success in the past as well as your hoped-for outcomes in the future.
Answer 10: The Prison Scholar Fund is leader on policy advocacy around prisoner education and education throughout the reentry process. As directly-impacted issue area experts, we are regularly involved in state and federal conversations about the role of education to disrupt cycles of incarceration and violence — and best practices in education opportunities during reentry and in carceral settings. We believe that those closest to the problem are often closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and opportunities. PSF is dedicated to bringing that lived experience to the table to impact policy decisions that create a better, safer, and more just for us all.
PSF was a key partner in the coalition to restore Pell Grant eligibility to persons in carceral settings — reversing the ban from the infamous 1994 Crime Bill. With the implementation of Pell Grant restoration schedule for mid-2023, there is a great deal of opportunity in the next few years to positively influence the development of post-secondary educational opportunities for people living behind bars to prioritize a conception of reentry that begins while someone is still living behind the walls.
Our founder and CEO has testified before the Washington Legislature on myriad occasions and has built relationships with key members of the legislature. At the federal level, PSF has made three trips to Washington to engage members on the Hill and bring stories from directly impacted communities to those policy makers. The Prison Scholar Fund also participates in the influential Reentry Working Group — a coalition of organizations focused on collateral consequences to criminal convictions that has been focused on influencing federal policy since 2003 as the first committee of the Justice Roundtable hosted by Open Society Foundations.
PSF also focuses on building community — an often overlooked form of advocacy. Grassroots organizing helps us connect populations with lived experience with the skills and access necessary to effectively influence law and policy. Mobilizing communities, especially more marginalized communities, begins with connection and helping foster a positive identity around which to advocate for creating meaningful and lasting change.
Question 11: Do any of your programs focus on Women and Girls?
Answer 11: The work we do for women and girls is indirect, but many of our programs focus on issues that exacerbate the racial and gender inequality. Women and girls are uniquely impacted by mass incarceration. Communities who are already marginalized by gender violence, economic disadvantage, and overt bias have those intersectional layers of separation from resources and opportunity intensified by involvement in the criminal legal system. Women and girls specifically suffer from the incarceration of loved ones in their lives — often their life partner or parent. We approach the problem of marginalization from a framework that appreciates the complex and compounding impacts of intersectionality involving multiple identities of disadvantage.
Question 11: Point of contact
Answer 11: Aviva Stampfer, Senior Grants Program Manager, at email@example.com
Question 12: Funding Decisions Made in June 2023
Our funding is unrestricted and our grants should be used wherever they are most needed except that we do not
- We are most interested in understanding community needs and how your organization is addressing those needs through the delivery of services to those directly impacted by inequity.
- We seek to support and collectively invest in organizations that are reflective of and embedded in the communities they serve, draw on the strengths and assets of these communities, and are accountable to these communities in order to achieve the long-term goals of increasing equity and reducing disparities.
- Join us on January 23rd, 2023 for the first part of our deep dive on Food Sovereignty and Security. This first panel will focus on the creative programs happening in our communities’ access to culturally appropriate food via sustainable food systems, and food security created through ecologically sound production lines. We will hear more about the relationship between people, power and food production, and the impact that relationship to the land has on climate and agricultural justice. (SOURCE)