by Claudia Jensen
How can students learn about the criminal justice system in a personal and powerful way? How can they understand the lives of people and families who have been impacted by the system without actually going through the process themselves? I hoped to provide students with that learning opportunity through the UW Honors course “In Your Name: A Service-Learning Experience in Seattle’s Criminal Justice System,” which I taught this last winter quarter. A class of 20 undergraduate students from both the UW Honors Program and Seattle’s Post-Prison Education Program (most of whom are local community college students) heard from outstanding professionals in Seattle’s criminal justice fields to give students an understanding of issues that they, as voters and citizens, will be responsible for throughout their lives.
As an affiliate instructor in Slavic languages and literature, I usually teach courses about Russian music. Last spring I taught my first course for the Honors Program, a class on Soviet-era music, and I began volunteering as a tutor for the Post-Prison Education Program, a Seattle nonprofit that provides funding and wraparound support for people who have come out of prison and are eager to get an education and contribute to their community.
Working with these students was inspiring. I was immediately struck with how similar these distinct groups of students were. Both were intent on getting everything they could from their education—all of them were eager, inquisitive, and absolutely delightful students and it didn’t take long before I thought about bringing them together.
Julie Villegas, associate director of the UW Honors program, was instantly supportive, seeing the class as a perfect fit with their focus on intellectual risk-taking and social engagement; UAA’s Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center also supported the idea. Ari Kohn, the founder of the Post-Prison Education Program, was very enthusiastic about the possibilities of such a collaboration and worked hard to promote the class.
During the 10 weeks of class, students heard from a variety of professionals in our local criminal justice profession: defense lawyers and prosecutors; a King County Superior Court judge and two members of the Seattle Police Department; the superintendent of the Monroe Correctional Complex; and several of the UW’s own specialists from the departments of sociology and law, societies, and justice. All of the students came away with tremendous respect for the work these people do.
“This class has been such an honor and a privilege to be in,” wrote one student. “Not only did we get to ask questions, but those decision-makers had the opportunity to listen to the other side of things. I think that alone is a huge step because it isn’t every day that…former prisoners have the opportunity to ask these questions.”
But the greatest learning came from the students’ interactions with each other. “Meeting the amazing Post-Prison Education students has shown me that someone’s past is not a measure of who they are and who they can become,” wrote one of the UW students. “This class became a true gift to me,” wrote another student. “It allowed me to stretch my thinking and my beliefs. It gave me a place where there was safety and hope for a better future. It allowed me to show others that I am not just a criminally convicted person. It allowed those people to get to know me, as a person, and to become their friend. These are all things that I once thought were impossible. They change everything.”
Together, the students have started an outreach group, the Post-Prison Community Collaboration Project, and they have posted writings, photos, and interviews on their website and on their YouTube channel. In April, they presented “People with Convictions,” a public event with readings, guest speakers, and performances by the Kagaka Lua dance ensemble (formed by two members of the class), and a theatrical performance of “In the Belly” by Insurgent Theater, a work based on the realities of the current American prison system.
The most important results of the class emerged from the friendships and commitment that developed among the students as they worked together on a variety of projects, including writing letters to incarcerated women, planning a mentoring program for at-risk youth, and submitting a joint essay to the Harvard Educational Review. They also enjoyed spending time together, for example at the Seattle Symphony, which generously designated the Post-Prison Education Program as one of their Community Connections partners.
I could write for several more pages about the personal impact of teaching this class but the students really say it best:
“I really have a lot of respect for these young people in our class for being so open-minded and brave. I have a new hope for our future generations of young people,” wrote one of the Post-Prison students.
“This class,” wrote another student, showed “how powerful one person with an idea can be….Never again will I doubt my ability to start something really spectacular.”
“I have never been a part of something so positive,” wrote one of the Post-Prison students, “and my hopes are that this collaboration continues long after this class has graduated.”
Claudia Jensen is an affiliate instructor in the department of Slavic languages and literatures and began volunteering at the Post-Prison Education Program last spring.