(An excerpt from our 2013-2014 Annual Report)
By Daniel Snyder
Throughout the winter quarter of 2013-14, I had the unique opportunity to work alongside some of the most hardworking classmates I have ever had: inmates at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington. Prior to this class, friends and family frequently asked ‘‘why would you want to take a class with prisoners?” Before the class, I was not able to develop a well-founded argument on why I wanted to spend my Fridays in a prison. Looking back, however, it is obvious. I have never learned as much in a single class as I did on the Fridays I spent at the prison debating environmental justice with inmates. Although the course was formally about the relationship and interactions between the environment and the law, studying alongside inmates meant its most lasting lessons were about the incarceration in Washington State.
Many of us are influenced by the media to believe that the vicious criminals on ”Locked Up” (a TV show documenting prisons throughout the world) are representative of inmates in all prisons, and that putting them all away for as long as possible is the best possible response to any crime. I myself held such assumptions prior to this experience. Upon my first day in the class, I realized that the general public really has no idea what goes on inside of a prison. What happens inside the ”wall”, as the inmates say, stays inside the wall. Weekly access to the prison and ”small-talk” conversations with the prisoners during periodic breaks exposed each of the UW students to the realities of our criminal justice system, and adapted many of us into advocates for a better system.
In the first few weeks, I quickly began to see the men as peers instead of inmates. My experience with the men was that they were individuals very similar to you and me, many of whom made a mistake when they were young and are now experiencing a life sentence without parole. By the end of the short quarter, I considered many of them friends who I looked forward to seeing each week in class, and checking in on how their week was going. Looking back, I can state with full conviction that I would be completely comfortable having many of the inmates as neighbors. In terms of their work ethic in the classroom, I was absolutely blown away by the integrity and intelligence of each individual. It was clear from the first day of class the immense amount of preparation and thought they put into each of the weekly readings (which frequently surpassed 100 pages a week). The inmates challenged the minds and ideas of each of the UW students each and every week, and absolutely exceeded all of my expectations.
Although my experience with the inmates was very limited, sharing twelve weeks of three-hour classes at the prison instilled an ethical obligation in me and many of my classmates to advocate for reform of the U.S. criminal justice system and sentencing protocols. As a peer of the men (and hopefully a friend to some), I’m glad I was able to participate in a class that made their time spent in prison truly better, as witnessed by the huge smiles and eager looks on their faces as class began each Friday afternoon. As members of society, we all have a moral obligation to repair a broken criminal justice system that affects those from our local communities. Participating in and supporting mixed enrollment classes is a small way to make a huge difference in the lives of inmates across the nation.
In partnership with the Law, Societies, and Justice Program, the UW CHR provides funds to support engaged instruction on human rights topics. In 2013-14, an honors research course on immigration in Washington state was supplemented to provide training in digital storytelling for both UW students and a group of youth from families who had experienced deportation; in 2014-15 funds will support a mixed enrollment course in which students from UW study alongside inmates at Washington State Reformatory.
Daniel Snyder grew up in Everett, WA, and is the first in his family to graduate from college. Daniel graduated with honors from UW in June 2014. “Upon taking LSJ 200 with Prof. Herbert my first quarter at UW, I immediately knew I wanted to become an LSJ student.” Daniel will be attending Seattle University School of Law in the Fall; “I hope to earn my JD with a specialization in criminal defense (one way to fight against harsh drug laws/ life without parole sentences).”