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UW Students Join Their Classmates in Prison

Story by
Nancy Joseph

UW senior James Coatsworth lives minutes from the UW’s Seattle campus. But last quarter, his Friday commute to class took more than 90 minutes each way.  First there was a lengthy drive, followed by multiple security checkpoints at the course site, including an airport-style screening. But that’s just business as usual when you take a UW class inside the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) at Monroe, a medium security prison.

The course was a senior seminar offered by the Law, Societies, and Justice (LSJ) program. Taught by Steve Herbert, the class brought together 15 LSJ majors and 12 WSR inmates to work side-by-side as classmates. “I knew of colleagues at other universities who had taught mixed-enrollment classes inside prisons, and I was confident that I could recruit a group of LSJ majors who would be keenly interested in such an opportunity,” says Herbert, director of LSJ and professor of LSJ and geography.

UW Students Join Their Classmates in Prison1

UW students and classmates from the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe pose for a group photo during class. “The dynamic between the UW and WSR students was great," says Professor Steve Herbert, far right. "It just grew organically.” Media credit: Washington State Reformatory

Herbert had several goals for the class. “For the UW students, my hope was for them to have some experience with the results of incarceration policy and to get past some of the common stereotypes of long-term prisoners,” he says. “For the prisoners, I wanted to create the nearest thing to a University of Washington classroom experience as possible. Many of them were eager to have that kind of experience and to interact with people from the outside.” All of the inmates had taken previous college courses, either through the University Beyond Bars (UBB) program or before entering prison.

Coatsworth, an LSJ and political science major, signed up for the class hoping to gain greater insight into the prison system. “So much of the LSJ curriculum involves the criminal justice system, but actual interaction with criminal justice is mostly limited to classroom simulations and discussion,” he explains. “It offered a rare opportunity to see a side of the system that students seldom have an opportunity to engage with.”

Just entering the prison was an experience. Laura Dietz, a senior majoring in LSJ and global health, remembers her hands being “sweaty and shaking” as she waited in line to be screened during the first visit. “After walking through multiple sets of steel bars and passing a measure of security clearances, we finally sat down in the classroom where a group of inmates joined us,” she recalls in an article for the UBB newsletter. “I sat in my chair, softly shaking, not knowing what to expect.”

The most satisfying aspect of the course for me was just getting to know the prisoners.... Throughout my entire university education, there wasn’t a single class that impacted me more than this one.

Dietz and her UW peers quickly adapted to the setting and their WSR classmates, most of whom are serving long prison terms or life sentences. “Working together helped humanize people who may well have done a horrible thing but are still struggling to not let that one act define who they are,” says Herbert. “These men were eager and willing to do the significant amount of work that this class demanded.”

That’s a good thing, since the course was a 400-level seminar with extensive readings and challenging discussions. Herbert held the inmates to the same high standards as any other student, and they more than rose to the challenge. 

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"I was confident that I could recruit a group of LSJ majors who would be keenly interested in such an opportunity,” says Steve Herbert, above, of his unusual mixed-enrollment course. Media credit: Mary Levin

“After the first week of class, a portion of the UW students felt that we were ‘out-worked’ by the inmates because they had such a thorough understanding of all the readings for the week,” notes LSJ senior Daniel Snyder. “Incarceration for long periods of time leads to self-reflection, and the prisoners had interesting and often brilliant perspectives.”

The course content was unrelated to the criminal justice system. Instead it focused on law and the environment. Herbert felt that the topic would equalize any imbalances, since the LSJ and WSR students were equally unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Class sessions were held once a week for three hours, with a mix of lectures and discussions in smaller groups.  Herbert changed the composition of the discussion groups regularly, always mixing UW students and inmates. “I realized quickly that the small groups were working really well, so I began to devote more time to small group exercises,” he recalls. “The dynamic between the UW and WSR students was great. It just grew organically.”

Coatsworth agrees. “The semi-awkward nature of interacting with inmates that existed during the first couple of weeks was virtually nonexistent by the end of the quarter,” he says, adding that the Super Bowl provided a source of easy banter during classroom breaks. “The guys were generally stoked before and after the game and enjoyed gloating about the big win as much as any of the UW students.”

In an essay describing his experience in the course, one inmate praised both its thought-provoking content and the welcoming environment. "Looking past the material, the environment of the class itself was simply amazing," he wrote. "Walking through the door to the class was like stepping out of prison and into an upper-level University classrooom—a welcome journey for those of us on this side of the walls."

Dietz was particularly taken with the “unspoken level of respect” between the two groups of students.    “This experience allowed us to break down preconceived notions of prisons and prison inmates and get to know them as intelligent peers,” says Dietz. “After getting to know these amazing men and seeing firsthand how much they value the opportunity to get an education and how much they have personally impacted mine, I feel a moral obligation to advocate for education within the prison system and hopefully reduce the stigma that surrounds prisons in general.”

Given the positive response to the mixed-enrollment course, Herbert plans to teach it annually.  He recognizes that, for students interested in criminal justice, it provides insights that can’t be found in a regular UW classroom.

“The most satisfying aspect of the course for me was just getting to know the prisoners and understanding their way of life inside of the Monroe Correctional Center,” says Snyder, who plans to become a criminal defense attorney. “Throughout my entire university education, there wasn’t a single class that impacted me more than this one.”