By Pamela Schwartz
Monroe, Washington, home to the Reptile Zoo and the Evergreen State Fair. A quiet and unassuming town only 40 minutes northeast of Seattle, Monroe is also home to the Monroe Correctional Complex, a five-unit reformatory housing maximum, medium and minimum level prisoners. For the next 10 weeks, I along with 13 of my colleagues from the Law, Societies and Justice Program will be embarking on a unique and unfamiliar journey, studying within the confines of the prison alongside 10 prisoners. Our class time will be spent discussing, questioning and debating the relationships between the law and geography: the study of law and how it interacts with spaces.
Approaching the guard tower on day one, Professor Herbert announces our arrival, as we continue to drive up the road towards the prison. Before us a large building surrounded by barbed wire, almost grand in style, seeks to intimidate us. We pause for a moment, taking in this imposing spectacle, but are immediately instructed to move inside. We quickly learn the routine: leave everything in the car except our identification, textbooks and pen. We sign in, trade our i.d. for a volunteer badge and walk upstairs through a metal detector. Swiftly escorted back downstairs, we enter another door and wait. Observing the sizeable metal door closing behind us, we remain for a very brief moment in a cramped space, allowing for just a slight hesitation of claustrophobia. Signing in again, we present our badges to the guard, falling in line, through hallways and open corridors, past the guard tower, outdoor track and weight room. We are instructed to walk quickly as prisoners are waiting for us to get settled before they can go outside.
Our final destination is the Prisoners Activity Center (PAC), a bright and unassuming building that houses a library, offices and classrooms. Upon entering the PAC we pass a well-lit library full of books and a classroom set up with yoga mats. Further down the hallway there are more offices and classrooms, until we are finally led to our room, which looks like a regular classroom with tables and chairs set up in a u-shape configuration. For just a moment, we are in typical classroom, on the first day of the quarter on any campus in anywhere-USA. We settle in to our unfamiliar surroundings, awaiting our new classmates. Enter 10 men, dressed in khaki pants and shirts, some heavily tattooed, representing all ages and all backgrounds. Reality sets in quickly. We’re not in Kansas anymore and this is no typical school.
Introductions coupled with polite handshakes, we greet each other having no expectations or preconceived notions. Wasting no time in breaking the ice, our Professor introduces a game to test our memory skills, challenging each of us to learn and recall the entire class’s names. Next we review the class syllabus, and are then broken into groups of 4 or 5, where we immediately dive into discussions.
One of the requirements is to complete all readings ahead of time and be prepared to discuss them in class. Opening up our rather large course packs, we begin to examine the questions of the week. Our conversations are lively and animated, each of us bringing to the group our own perspectives and life experiences. At one point we find ourselves challenged by a question. I instinctively reach for my cellphone only to realize that it’s tucked away in the van. With no computers or smartphones to assist us, dictionaries become our new best friend. Finally, confident that we’ve completed all the questions, we are called back to discuss our thoughts and answers. Hands are raised, opinions are expressed, someone cracks a joke and the room erupts in laughter. More hands are raised, more discussion, time passes ever so quickly.
The clock shows 3:30pm, time to end class. Where did the time go? None of us recall a 3-hour class ever going by this quickly. Switching to autopilot, I ask my group, “What does everyone have planned for the weekend?” Immediately I wish I could take those words back. Recognizing my embarrassment, one of the prisoners politely answers that he’s looking forward to watching the Seahawks game. We finally say our goodbyes to our 10 new classmates, adding a “Go Seahawks” for good measure.
Walking back to the van, we acknowledge that this was a truly remarkable day. Any fears or concerns we had before today are long gone. Spending a Friday afternoon in prison while discussing and engaging in candid and stimulating conversations with 24 classmates was both extraordinary and exhausting. We all agree… we can’t wait until next Friday.
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 prisoners at Washington State Reformatory.
Pamela Schwartz returned to the University of Washington in 2013 after 30 years to complete her Bachelors of Arts degree in Law, Societies and Justice and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies minor. In her professional career, Pamela was a manufacturer’s representative for a women’s swimwear company for over 15 years. Pamela Schwartz joined the Pacific Northwest Board of the Anti-Defamation League in 2004 and was a recipient of the ADL’s Daniel R. Ginsberg Leadership award in 2007. She is a member of both the Regional Board and Executive Committee, serving as Board Chair from 2008-2010. She served on the Board of the Stroum Jewish Community Center and Temple De Hirsch Sinai and has been active in several other community organizations including the Northwest School and Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. Pamela will be graduating in spring 2015. She is married to Steve and they have 2 daughters, Emilie and Sofia.