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"In Your Name" Prison Education Class Reflection

May 10, 2017

by Hannah Myrick '19

This summer I was involved in the class HONORS 230: Education inside Prison. A class that I strongly encourage every UW student to take. A class that is so incredible, I still barely believe it exists. The class focused on bringing together UW students and men from the Monroe Correctional Complex (a state prison about 45 minutes from Seattle) together in an environment where we collaborated on projects to help educate ourselves and the public about issues faced by incarcerated citizens.

Upon first reading the class description on the Honors Program website I thought it sounded interesting, but I don’t think it fully hit me that we would be embarking on such an adventure in education. I figured I would learn a lot about a subject I knew essentially nothing about and that I would leave with a new perspective, but I didn’t realize that the way this perspective would change was through an entirely life-altering experience.

In total there were 18 students—7 inmates from Twin Rivers Unit (TRU), a part of the Monroe Correctional Complex—and 11 UW undergrads in the Honors Program, all with different majors, grade levels and passions. All students were engaged and passionate adults ready to learn from each other. As one of my fellow students, Yusef, said, the class was "structured in a way that facilitates an exchanging of ideas and perspectives that has a very organic feel."

The class was held three days a week, two of which were held at the UW and one of which was held at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), a 5-prison complex that is made up of various security levels and buildings. On the second day of class we were given a full tour of the prison. The complexes range from the Washington State Reformatory to the Intensive Management Unit to the Special Offender Unit, which is a separate facility for those who are suffering from mental illness. During our tour, it was clear that this class would be a commitment and also something that I would probably never experience again. We were given a highly detailed look at the prison system from the inside out.

The final part of our tour was the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU), the facility we would be in for our class. Claudia Jensen, our incredible UW teacher, found this class would be the best for TRU. There are not many outside educational programs offered at TRU, so our class would be a way to offer some positive educational opportunities there. She would become our guide through new perspectives and frustrating bureaucracies, and through it all she showed her fiery passion for making a difference. She kept us all motivated, strong and levelheaded even when other obstacles got in the way. She taught us how to be students open and ready to work for change in this new situation.

Kristyn Whisman, the Dean of Education for the complexes that lie within MCC, was our liaison in the prison giving us the ins and outs of the system, educationally, structurally and personally. We knew from the moment we met her that she would be the ultimate guide through this class, because not only was she honest and meaningful in all of her thoughts and actions, but because she also wanted us all to get as much as possible out of the class. She was one of the key elements which made this class so special. Kristyn was responsible for selecting the TRU participants, based on her acquaintance with their previous educational experiences and interests. These were all men who were passionate about learning and were excited to take on a class of this sort.

Kristyn Whisman, Dean of Education for the Monore Correctional Center, presents a TRU student with a certificate of completion for the class. Whisman was an indispensable teacher and link between MCC and the UW community. 

Over a series of meetings with Kristyn and Claudia in the months before class started, the incarcerated students honed down the project topics and presented them to us on the first day of class. The UW students then separated into the group we found most interesting and over the course of the next four weeks continued to build on the original idea and come up with some finalized product.

Every one of the men that we worked with was something unexpected. As a whole they made up a group of engaged, creative, passionate students and the ideal classmates. They inspired us to learn more about the topics we knew essentially nothing about and they listened to the ideas we had and helped us discover ways to find resources once we left for the day. We did our best to show our interest and do all we could to help further.

From the first day of class interacting with these men, all nervousness seemed to fade away and as soon as we got to talk one-on-one with them, the possibilities for our projects seemed endless. On that first day none of us knew what to expect, but by the end of this class session we were already excited for next week’s 3-hour class, as TRU student Leon put it: "Leaving that first class I came back to my cell and wrote two excited emails. Both started out: 'OMG, finally people are talking about actual issues. ... The next week came and I was hardly able to sleep the night before class. I had so much I wanted to say.' So much I wanted to hear…I left hungry, wanting to be part of change. ...Night times when the prison world was asleep, I was up thinking. Wondering about all the issues in front of us as a whole."

Essentially every impression I originally had of these men was one based from skewed media images, which is what originally made me (and I think many others) unsure of what was to come. These were images that depicted prisoners as insane, dangerous, without personality and essentially barely human. Obviously, I knew that this image was one that was skewed, that played into the fear of the American public. But little did I know how wrong my perception had been. These men were doing everything they could (with the very little power they had) to peacefully 'fight' back against the bureaucracy that held in not only their bodies, but also their imaginations and freedoms. It is difficult to imagine a life without the resources of your average American citizen outside of prison, but these men were living that life and although they were surviving in it, they wanted to find new and better ways to improve their current situation.

They wanted to be unstuck from their current way of living and did essentially everything in their power to not let the system limit them. These men pushed past that as much they could and were passionate and brave and receptive and ready to take on the new challenge that this class had to offer, and for that I cannot be more grateful. And this class seemed to help them do it. "It felt as though the UW students understood my/our struggle. Not just understood, I guess. That seems to sell short the passion I got from them. They came here charged to help make a difference" said Leon, a fellow TRU student.

There were three groups and one group per project, with both TRU and UW students being split up into each group. The intent of the projects was to provide to these men what we all saw as essential services both inside prison and outside prison upon release. "Our project topics were relevant, our work on the issues of resiliency was important, and the UW students were all involved, interested, and engaging," said Kyle, one of our fellow TRU classmates.

The first project was about the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey (ACEs). This survey asks its participants to answer a series of questions based on their childhood and topics such as neglect, abuse, parental relationships etc. and, based on the results, researchers have found some specific negative life patterns, including decreased physical health. Interestingly enough, none of these surveys had ever been done within the prison population, although based on their answers it would seem to be clear that many of them had had negative childhood experiences that might have contributed to their being in prison.

This group took surveys both of the general public and of some of the members of TRU and with those results saw that the men of TRU had higher levels of adverse childhood experiences than that of the general public. This indicated that many of them had answered questions similarly and most likely had similar childhoods, eventually contributing to a life in prison. Ultimately, this group hopes that studies like the ACEs questionnaire might lead to better therapies available in prison settings. This project is currently being developed more fully, with a larger survey of the population at Monroe in the planning stages.

The second project was from the group I was a part of. We were focused on re-integration once these men are released from prison. Upon release, former prisoners are offered the most basic resources to return to society—this may mean just a bus ticket and a temporary placement at a halfway house and a list of potential jobs. However, although this is important, the things we wanted to focus on were more in depth than simply housing and job resources. We wanted to focus on the resources necessary for these men to not only re-enter into society, but rather re-integrate and become fully functioning members of their communities. We proposed a 12-week class focusing on financial education, digital/mobile literacy, emotional intelligence and finding a positive community.

The proposal we created for this class introduced everything from how to use google maps to what makes a healthy relationship. These were what our whole group (our fellow 2 TRU students and 4 UW students) believed to be the most effective use of time for a class focusing on making these men functioning, positive and healthy members of their community.

The third group had a variety of projects, but its overarching idea was to create support and resiliency after release. The two TRU students within this group created a storyboard for a proposed documentary, which would depict a personal story of the men in this prison and the hardships they've gone through. With this they proposed a movie screening with various community-wide partners. Their second project, which was very closely tied with the second group’s, was to create a community outreach center which would provide various resources for jobs, mentorships, housing, etc. which would be available to people released from prison or to families with family members who may be in prison. The motivation to create this center was to have a place where people associated with the prison can go to help improve their lives post release.

UW student presents part of group project on Adverse Childhood experiences (ACE) survey and its link to the prison environment. This was one of three projects presented on the final day of class. 

What was fantastic about all of these projects is the fact that there was a clear link between all of them. With the first group, we were focusing on the prison itself and the men’s health within it. From there, with the second project we looked at building on that mental health and building on their confidence in a class which would get them from healthy in prison to healthy and functioning in any outside prison community. Lastly, the third group looked at creating tangible resources and help for men that were released and needed a center to go to for help with jobs, housing, mentoring, etc. to further their health. It also focused on creating connections within the community so that they could engage immediately with outside opportunities after they returned to society. The integration of all these three groups very clearly demonstrated the importance of giving these men, and the prison population in general, the confidence and resources they need to succeed.

Something that struck me the other day was that it seems a person being released from prison must feel like a refugee in their own country. All known customs from their previous place of living are thrown out the window and they are forced to learn new ways without much outside assistance. Whether it be the language of technology, appropriate social behavior or who to reach out to, they are often left in the dark. The comparison is somewhat eerie, especially if you look at the similarities in the way both of these groups are vilified, but it also gives a good perspective at why it is important to give prisoners a second chance. To them, being released is often like crossing the border into a foreign land and they need all the assistance they can to readjust. It is important to understand this analogy, because it puts it in more relatable terms. I cannot clearly express how important it is to give these men the resources they need and offer them opportunities to succeed. As Kyle memorably put it, "The 2016 summer Honors class was definitely one of the most positive and productive endeavors in which I have been involved in my decades of incarceration."

There is one memory that clearly stands out: saying goodbye. We were all sad to see each other go. The final presentations made us all realize how much we cared about the outcome of our own projects. We had put so much work into our ideas that we could not bear the idea of the class ending without a tangible result. I believe those of us from UW  left with open minds, fresh with new perspectives and beautiful stories and ideas. We all hope that sometime in the near future we can see our projects developed and our incarcerated classmates truly benefit from the work that they put into improving their lives and futures.

UW and TRU students gather for a class photo after presenting their projects.


Additional reflections by classmates from the Twin Rivers Unit in Monroe:

"The empathy was tangible and appreciated, if by no one else by myself forever. All these students who, during the height of the summer months, choose to come inside a prison because of their principles and values and give us a gift that is priceless to those like me ... HOPE. I can’t say how this opportunity has touched me in a way truly that would show the depth of the effect it has had on me. What I can and will say is that I’m one more giant leap forward on my own life’s pathway." -Adam

"The class, as well intended as it is and for all it accomplishes, brings even more into focus the struggles of prison education, the plight of the justice involved, and the institution of imprisonment. ... Ultimately, I have come to the conclusion that to effectively address these issues, we must think beyond the tethers of old ideas and ways of doings. For me, the single most transformative aspect of this class is a simple one. It is a space and time for the expression of ideas." - Yusef

"This focus on resiliency was highly emphasized, and seemed to be especially helpful in making a difference in the long run. I do believe that we can make substantive changes within the prison system if we remain focused, dedicated and resilient." - Kyle

"It wasn’t just about us pointing out the problems. But [determining] what is needed and how do we move forward. It was pretty much like [the UW students] are the inventors with all the resources, and [inmates] have the blueprint. Every Wednesday afternoon I was looking forward to coming and each time I stepped in the room prison was forgotten." -Jose