UW News

March 26, 2012

Former prison inmates and UW honors students share class together

UW News

(Left to right) Dolphy Jordan, Ben Horst, Gillian Kenagy, Jillian Hammond

(Left to right) Dolphy Jordan, Ben Horst, Gillian Kenagy, Jillian Hammond

When discharged two years ago, Jordan was hungry for education.

During winter quarter, Jordan and other former inmates like him were in a class with people equally hungry for education: honors students at the UW.

And now the group, 10 former prisoners and eight honors students, has become the Post-Prison Community Collaboration Project. As part of its work, the group in April put on “People with Convictions,” an evening in Kane Hall featuring a discussion of prison life, a dramatic presentation and a dance performance that includes former prisoners.

“The Post-Prison class grew out of jury duty that became a life-changing event,” said Claudia Jensen, a UW affiliate professor who specializes in Russian music but ran the class as part of the Honors program.

Things started in February 2011, when Jensens husband, Brad Clem, was a juror in a case of three young men charged in a drug deal that included assault. He and Jensen were struck by the disparities between the young men and their own children who were about the same age but had had many more opportunities. This led Clem and Jensen to a post-trial conversation with defense attorney James Bible, and eventually to the Post-Prison Education Program, where they now volunteer as tutors.

The program helps former inmates with post-secondary education, and includes wraparound services – help with things like books, rent, groceries and child care.

Jensen, 57, taught her first honors course in spring 2011. She was struck by similarities between those students and the ones in the Post-Prison Program: “They want to get every drop out of their education. Everything I assign, they read; everything I ask, they do.”

Jensen suggested the post-prison class to Julie Villegas, associate director of the UW Honors
Program, and Rachel Vaughn, now director of the UW’s Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center, who supported and helped plan it.

The class aimed to undo stereotypes about former prisoners and provide those still incarcerated with resources to make good once released. Coursework included readings and weekly speakers, including Bible; Scott Frakes, superintendent of the Monroe Correctional Complex; and Steve Herbert, director of the UW Law Societies and Justice Program. After each lecture, the class adjourned to a smaller room for seminar-style discussions with guest speakers.

Ari Kohn spoke during the last session of the class. He founded the Post-Prison Education Program seven years ago, and now runs it from an office in downtown Seattle. Its 2011 budget was $700,000, all from private sources. Student scholarships range from several hundred dollars to thousands for a combination of food, shelter, tuition and legal bills. Since inception, said Kohn, the program has supplied at least minimal assistance to more than 1,000 former prisoners, and of them about 110 have received substantial help. Of that 110, Kohn said, two have committed crimes that sent them back to prison.

Kohn, 64, served 55 months in federal prisons for wire fraud related to business transactions. He said he saw prisoners unable to cope with either prison or the outside world, as theyd grown up in terrible circumstances, often without education.

Kohn offered some statistics from the Washington Department of Corrections: About 16,300 people are locked in state prisons. Within five years of release, about 42 percent of former inmates return to prison with one or more new felony convictions. Of those who recidivate, 72 percent do so within the first year, and 42 percent of that group within the first three months.

Kohn finished a bachelors degree in political science at the UW in 2005, the same year he founded the Post-Prison Education Program.

If anything can change things, and keep people out of prison, he said, education can. “Its why I started the Post-Prison Education Program,” he told the class. “Its what fuels my fire and keeps us growing.”

For the UW class, Kohn and a member of his staff chose 10 students in the Post-Prison program, people they had worked with, from their roster of about 23 students, down from about 44 last May because of budget cuts.

Lizzie Reid, 47, is a member of the Post-Prison class and its resulting collaborative. She served three sentences, a total of almost five years, on drug charges. Reid is now in her fourth semester at Green River Community College in Auburn. Shes nailed a 4.0 average each semester, aiming for the University of Washington, a law degree and a career as a public interest attorney.

In a series of reflections for the class, Reid wrote that the grades “helped me to have more faith in myself, and to begin believing that things could truly be different.”

Jensen and the students recently submitted a 13-page summary of the Post-Prison class to the Harvard Educational Review for an upcoming book on the school-to-prison pipeline. Reid contributed an essay about how an abusive childhood made her lose interest in education. It grew out of one of her reflections.

“Being in school required too much effort,” she wrote. “Effort to wake myself up. Effort to look for the cleanest dirty clothes to wear. Effort to help my sisters and brothers get up. Effort to find anything at all to eat. Effort to get to school on time without a ride. Effort to explain why there was no completed homework. Effort to explain why there were no supplies. Effort to not go through the free lunch line, even though I was hungry, because of the humiliation … Effort to get excused from P.E. so the bruises and marks wouldnt show.”

Lots of people in prison get tired of their lives – the circumstances that brought them to crime, the hopelessness of prison, Kohn said. They want better lives so education becomes attractive, said several former inmates who were in the class. As part of their work, class members put together an education resource guide for inmates.

Having availed himself of the Post-Prison Education Program, 39-year-old Jordan attends South Seattle Community College, aiming for bachelors and masters degrees in social work and a career helping kids at risk.

“Ill be able to relate to kids,” he said. “Convey my experience so as to prevent them from making the same mistakes I did.” Meantime, Jordan works part-time as volunteer coordinator for the Post-Prison Education Program.

Both UW and Post-Prison students realized they have the same dreams about education making their lives rich and good. They also got rid of stereotypes. Some honors students were wary of associating with people who had served time but wound up organizing such things as a girls night out, not part of the class but rather, on their own. The former prisoners had wondered whether theyd be accepted, whether theyd fit in college. “But I found that I could fit. I did,” said 42-year-old Gina McConnell,

Ben Horst, a 20-year-old UW honors student, wrote about things he didnt expect: “We both came here to learn, we wind up teaching each other more than we ever thought possible. We shattered stereotypes from the moment we sat down.”