January 4, 2016
UW class pairs students and inmates for unique learning experience
On a rainy December afternoon, a group of students in the University of Washington’s Law, Societies & Justice program sit in a classroom discussing what elements might be included in a restorative justice program.
The conversation is lively, the comments thoughtful. But this isn’t any ordinary classroom, and it isn’t your usual group of university students. The UW students were taking the autumn quarter class on culture, crime and criminal justice alongside 10 male classmates who brought more than theoretical knowledge to the table — all are serving time at the Monroe Correctional Complex northeast of Seattle.
For the inmates, the “mixed-enrollment” course held at the prison was a rare chance to study alongside fourth-year UW students in an academically rigorous setting. For the UW students, it was an equally rare opportunity to get a sense of how issues discussed in class play out in real life. To meet with their classmates, they had to undergo security checks, pass through metal gates and walk by an outdoor recreation area secured with razor-wire fencing.
“We talk about mass incarceration — we talk about 2.2 million people in the U.S. imprisoned — but getting to know these people, that’s completely different,” said UW student Meron Fikru.
“We’re taught to fear prisoners. We’re taught to distance ourselves from them,” she said. “But these guys are brilliant. They’re funny and they’re humble and they’re so respectful. It’s been a really humanizing experience.”
Classmate Becky Womelsdorf plans to attend law school and said the course provided something a traditional classroom setting could not.
“It’s really beneficial to learn about these issues from a perspective that’s different from what we’re usually exposed to,” she said. “This is not something you can get anywhere else.”
The class was taught by Steve Herbert, a UW professor and director of the Law, Societies & Justice program. It’s the third mixed-enrollment class that Herbert, a past recipient of the UW’s distinguished teaching award, has taught at the prison. The topics have varied, but all have been fourth-year courses.
Herbert’s goal is to provide an intellectually stimulating experience for all students, and he said the UW students are often taken aback at how prepared their prison counterparts are.
“They’re very good classmates,” he said. “There’s a very clear expectation that the students are meant to carry the load of the conversation, and the [prison] students are very well-prepared.”
Hannah Schwendeman welcomed the challenge. “You need to be prepared for class,” she said. “Having partners for learning who are so passionate and so informed has been great.”
Inmate Noel Caldellis, 28, had no college education when he came to prison in 2008 on a first-degree murder conviction. He’s now working on a bachelor’s in history and said taking Herbert’s classes instilled confidence in his abilities.
“It’s helped me understand just how close we are to college students who are on the outside,” said Caldellis, who is scheduled for release in 2029. “Besides circumstance and education, we are just as capable of doing college-level work.”
The UW class is offered through University Beyond Bars, a Seattle nonprofit that provides college courses for prisoners. The organization offers about 30 classes at the Washington State Reformatory and the Minimum Security Unit in Monroe, including a Saturday night arts and lecture series, college courses for students pursuing associate degrees, and non-credit courses.
The UW courses are made possible through the Timothy Richard Wettack Fund, named in honor of a Law, Societies & Justice alum who was impassioned about prison issues. They are non-credit, since the university’s tuition fees would be out of reach for inmates. Washington law currently prohibits using state funds for higher education courses in prison, but state lawmakers have considered a bill that would eliminate the ban.
University Beyond Bars aims to address educational inequity, improve inmates’ chances of employment after release and reduce recidivism rates. A 2013 study found that inmates who participate in prison education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who do not.
The UW classes emulate a regular classroom experience as closely as possible, with the same expectations and course load for everyone, said Stacey Reeh, University Beyond Bars’ executive director.
“Our students want to be held to the same standards,” she said. “Our goal is to recreate the university classroom, and these classes really do that. They really feel like they are taking a University of Washington class.”
Prison is often a racially segregated environment, Reeh said, but the classes bring together inmates from diverse backgrounds. Students learn skills that are important on the outside, she said, like critical thinking and effective communication. Some become leaders across the prison, communicating with upper-level administrators and even state legislators.
Devon Adams, who is serving time for first-degree murder, sits on the program’s 19-member advisory committee. He works as a UBB teaching assistant and tutors fellow inmates in college prep math courses. He’s just two courses away from completing a bachelor’s degree through Ohio University, but it’s been a long road to get there.
In his early days of imprisonment, Adams said, he saw no path forward. Education gave him something positive to focus on. He first took an English class, and to his surprise, got a B.
“I was used to Cs and Ds and barely passing, so I thought, ‘man, maybe I can do this,'” said Adams, 36, who is scheduled for release in 2024. “I began to build this confidence, and now I’m thinking about what possibilities life has to offer.”
Adams has taken two of Herbert’s classes and plans to pursue a graduate degree. He wants to be a positive role model for his daughter, who is graduating from high school in the spring and hopes to attend UW.
“I can tell her, ‘This is what your daddy’s doing,'” he said. “I’m not in here squandering opportunities away and disregarding the pain I put my family through,” said Adams.
“A big part of my rehabilitation, a big part of my transformation, has to do with wanting to make my family proud of me in some way. That’s really a motivating factor for me,” he said.
At the end of the class, the last of the quarter, the students gather to share their suggestions for developing a restorative justice program. Then UW student Nathan Bean presents the inmates with cards their classmates signed that morning.
“It’s an understatement to say that these are the very least we could provide for you,” he said. “This experience is going to stay with us, and it means a lot more than these cards are going to convey. It has been an honor for us to be here and learn alongside you.”