Transforming Education In Prison

November 19, 2018

Transforming Education In Prison

By Alexis Huerta (Interdisciplinary Honors sophomore)

UW undergrads (Alexis Huerta, bottom left corner) and incarcerated students at the Monroe correctional complex during Honors’ 2018 summer field studies course: “In Your Name”

The University of Washington’s Honors Program offers the opportunity to explore the central component of the American criminal justice system: prison. Through the Honors Program, instructor Claudia Jensen’s course, “In Your Name: Education in Prison,” gives students the opportunity to collaborate with inmates at the Twin Rivers Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex. We split our class into three groups, with each focusing on a particular issue revolving around the narrative of incarceration: education, aging, and virtual reality.

Click here to read student Anand Sekar’s story about the virtual reality (VR) project that UW students and inmates collaborated on, aimed at assisting released prisoners with reentry into society!

Participating in this course is a life-changing experience, it draws one out of oneself, out of our comfort zones and our preconceived notions, and places us in a much larger context. By utilizing the narratives of empathy and interpersonal connection, we bridge the cultural differences between the free and the imprisoned. When interacting with these men and listening to their stories, the notion of incarceration becomes much more complex. It is, above all else, a humanizing experience. The outcome is the realization that although these are individuals that have committed egregious acts at one point in their life, they are nonetheless human beings possessing dignity and rehabilitative capacities.

The inmates who worked with UW students were men with brilliant minds, who spoke with intense passion and prolificacy. Despite their differences, an ardent desire to create profound social change united everyone who participated in the class. For the student inmates, it was an experience that allowed them to be seen as human beings again. In the words of one of the inmates, “The team members from the UW motivate me by their passion for accomplishment – doing something in the world. I’m motivated to do something I’m passionate about because I’m in prison. This is my story, my platform. In many ways this is where I can make my contribution to the human experience. So I look at these young people and get a clearer sense of who I am and what I should be doing to fulfill my passion.”

Though spanning only a few weeks, the groups worked long and hard to make the objectives of their projects come to fruition. Despite the setbacks, they remain optimistic and know future participants will build upon their efforts to redefine the culture of imprisonment. As one of the students wrote: “Strange as it may seem, wrong as it may seem, the existence of our class felt like a safe haven and a beacon of hope. We had all become something more as a result of knowing and interacting with one another. I, personally, feel more aware than ever of the privilege I have to be living my life exactly the way I want to, and to be granted opportunities constantly to expand that life all the more.”