AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — Some of the inmates at the Airway Heights Corrections Center enjoy their pursuit of an education through programs with Spokane Community College, but it did not start off that way.

Around 700,000 people leave prisons in America each year. Within three years of being released, about half of them will end up back behind bars, according to 2013 data from the Department of Justice. The data also shows that inmates who took part in education programs while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to return.

The DOJ research findings show that each dollar invested in prison education translates into a savings of four to five dollars from lower recidivism.

Just like in any other classroom, students at the Airway Heights Corrections Center are studying to get an education. Around 600 of them take Spokane Community College classes each day.

“I never really liked school to begin with when I was out on the streets,” inmate Carlos Mendoza said. “So when I first came here it was that same mindset where I didn't really want to do anything.”

Mendoza is a little more than a year into his sentence and has since gained a passion for pursuing education.

“Mr. Mendoza, he's been such a joy to work with. When he came in, he had attitude too. He did not want to be there. He did not think he could do this,” GED Instructor Kellee Mote said. “He finally decided, you know what I'm never going to get it done if I don't give it a try. So he tried it, he was successful and he's just blossomed.”

Mendoza has blossomed so much, he is now not just a student. He also serves as instructor Mote's teaching assistant, helping fellow inmates as they pursue their own education.

“He works well with the guys. He's a good TA, because he knows what everyone else in that room is going through and feeling,” Mote said.

“Everybody has the capability to better themselves, and even though we're in here doesn't mean we don't know anything,” Mendoza said.

Thanks to educational opportunities through the Department of Corrections and Spokane Community College, many inmates can leave prison with GED’s and a path towards higher education.

“I can do it, we can all do it. You've just got to put your time and effort in to it,” Mendoza said. “It's not going to be easy, but it's at the same time not hard if you put your mind to it.”

They can also take part in specialized courses like mechanical engineering, culinary arts and upholstery.

Prison officials and inmates said these opportunities make it less likely they find themselves back behind bars.

“Putting those paths out for them, to either follow or not follow is what's important. And then it's up to them to choose whether to step on the path or take a different path,” Mote said. “But to give them the opportunity and for them to realize what's even out there and that they can grasp that if they want to.”

Mendoza said he is scheduled to be out in 2024. He plans to follow his education path into a career in culinary arts. His biggest inspirations are his four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.

"I look at it and it's to help me out so when I do get out I'm able to do better for myself and for my kids,” Mendoza said. “I want to show them that even though I'm in here, I've still done what I can to better myself and help them out when I get out.”

This is part one of a story series on this subject. The next will come Friday about a former inmate who is continuing his education after release.