Education Inside Prison, Part Two

Honors Students Working to Transform Education Access

Education Inside Prison 2

Written by Kathleen Edelheit and the students of Honors 230A (inside and out.)

Kathleen Edelheit is majoring in Anthropology and will graduate this Fall. She plans on attending law school with a focus on Public Interest and Poverty Law.

"In Your Name: Education Inside Prison" was a collaboration between the students inside and outside of prison and also between the Honors Program and the many officials at the Monroe Correctional Complex who made it possible. Kristyn Whisman, Dean of Correctional Education at MCC, was a partner in all aspects of the planning. Mark Kucza, Associate Superintendent, joined Kristyn in leading a class on the UW campus to prepare UW students for their visits to the facility. Julie Villegas, Associate Director of the Honors Program, was able to attend and observe one of our TRU classes, and the Superintendent of TRU, Sally Neiland, dropped in on our class and attended our final presentations.

We talked to correctional officers and educational staff; visited prison classrooms and heard from counselors and social workers—in short, we were able to immerse ourselves in a different world. "Too many times," wrote Emma, "at the UW I learn about places I will never visit, people I will never meet, and topics I will never encounter. The ability to engage with the populations and experience the environments we were studying was incredible."

"Education in prison is important, with it inmates leave with an academic education rather than a criminal education."(Donald)

Our classes took place in the TRU visitor's room, which was located directly across from a fully staffed correctional officer's booth, and a staff member was present at all times. We were all a bit nervous on that first day as we entered with only pencils, notebooks, and our lunches. No cell phones, pens, or cash. No open-toed shoes or white or red t-shirts (which are part of the inmates' uniforms). We learned to be efficient as we picked up our visitors' passes, emptied our pockets, and took off our shoes to go through the scanner. We learned to wait for doors to be unlocked in front of us and locked again behind us.

We didn't really know what to expect; as Andy said, "Having a joint class with prisoners is both thrilling and unsettling at first thought." We weren't alone—the TRU students shared our initial hesitation: "When I was first approached with the idea of participating in this class, I was both skeptical and nervous ... it's not often that we, as inmates, get to interact directly with people in the free world," wrote Jeremy. Toralai echoed his statement: "When I first signed up for this class, I was skeptical of the objective, and unsure of how serious those involved were with bringing this objective to fruition. However, once we received our course materials, and met with the UW students, my mind began to open to the possibilities, I saw how serious everyone was."

"I hope this class will help change the public's view regarding education for incarcerated women and men who are genuinely looking for a second chance." (Aleksandr)

Once the ice was broken, our discussions were wide-ranging and passionate. As Lily wrote: "The most significant thing that I think I learned is that prison isn't simple. It has countless complex layers, rules, unspoken rules and politics that go with it." Gobe expressed the same appreciation of complexity: "Prisons and education inside prisons is such a complex issue that I found myself genuinely standing on both sides of the fence at times. To me, it is amazing how ingrained emotional responses toward offenders are built into the criminal justice system and what these perspectives on criminals says about our society as a whole." The TRU students continually reminded us of some stark facts: they need to have training so that they can find employment when they are released, yet, at the same time, as one student remarked bluntly, "I love the liberal arts, and if I could be a career student I would study all of them. But, I am a murderer who will someday need to provide for my family and need to focus on making myself employable."

Each session began with a tour of different parts of the Monroe Correctional Complex, which is made up of several different units and, overall, a total of about 2500 inmates. "The tours," wrote Gobe, "were not only thought provoking, but mesmerizing on an emotional level as well. In me, they raised a new sense of empathy [and] I was able to find a voice on matters of education, of treatment of inmates, and on support structures upon release."

The TRU compound itself felt a bit like a community college campus, or perhaps even a convalescent facility due to the many aging inmates using canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. However, when we visited the Washington State Reformatory, we experienced an imposing and faceless building replete with grinding gates and the wire-topped expanse of the exercise yard. It was here that we most powerfully felt the potential for violence, for this is where Jayme Biendl, a member of the corrections staff, was murdered in the chapel by a prisoner in 2011. "When I see the portraits of Jayme Biendl hanging in every unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex," wrote Lily, "I can empathize with those guards who maybe don't support higher education in prison because their best friend was strangled and murdered by an inmate."

"Thank you for showing me that success is an option." (Donald)

One of our most searing experiences was the tour of the Special Offender Unit (SOU), which is a complex of around 400 inmates with mental illnesses. The facility was bleak, sheathed in coils of razor wire and highly secure. We entered a vacant cell in this complex and, as Michael wrote: "The small cell was a dismal gray color, and scratched into the metal shower control box was a smiley face with the text above reading 'smiley.' Walking between the units at SOU was an aural and visual experience, with inmates banging on the windows at the women in our group, making gestures to take pictures. I remember an older inmate was wrapped up to his head in his blanket, rocking back and forth while staring out the window, his mouth making words that I could not hear. Dean Whisman told us to keep our heads down, but among the rows of bundled razor wire, concrete, the thumping, and the foreign territory I was in, I could not comply."

However, within these same walls at SOU there is a program that offers hope and companionship: the kitten program, in which abandoned kittens are brought in to be socialized by carefully selected inmates. Our guide, a program participant, was initially shy and withdrawn until the staff brought in his newest kitten. He then became animated and explained with great warmth that the kitten "is a little nervous around new people, but he'll be OK." As Kathleen wrote: "I couldn't help but wonder if he was speaking about himself. When asked if he missed his kittens, our guide said 'oh yes, each and every one of them, but I'm happy because they are going to forever homes.' There were more than a few of us who were on the verge of tears."