By Pamela Schwartz
It’s not often that the memories of a class endure long after the quarter has ended. However, the memories of our mixed enrollment class persist, leaving me unsettled, as if there’s unfinished business. Consequently, as I reflect back to winter quarter 2015 and my time studying within the formidable walls and intimidating surroundings of the Washington State Reformatory, I am filled with a melancholy that remains embedded in my heart.
Like many of my LSJ colleagues, I was slightly hesitant at the prospect of entering the prison, a fear of the unknown. However, all that disappeared immediately with our initial hellos and greetings from our University Beyond Bars classmates, who offered us up a cup of tea or coffee from their own private stash.
Weeks sped by as we quickly adapted to our Friday routine, although this class was hardly routine. Delving into the topics of the week, our UBB colleagues challenged our thinking with their interesting and engaging perspectives. Respectful and thought-provoking, our classroom time together allowed for an unusual bond between classmates. Yet Fridays remained bittersweet; as we LSJ students celebrated the arrival of the upcoming weekend, our UBB colleagues dreaded its monotony. As we entered our tenth and final week of class, it was clear that saying goodbye would be difficult. Sensing our need for closure, Professor Herbert suggested we meet one more time in Monroe after spring break.
Upon returning in April, we were provided a tour of the Correctional Center. Walking past the stark and institutional rooms of the prison, I could sense the harshness of this existence, yet nothing quite prepared me for our final stop: that of a prisoner’s cell. Housed in a 6×9 space, up to 2 prisoners live in extremely tight and cramped quarters, further sharing a space with bunk bed-style sleeping accommodations, a small desk, sink and toilet. I sadly wrestled with the fact that our UBB classmates lived here, many of them spending their entire adult life in these confines. Extreme and brutal spaces of imprisonment, they lack daylight and privacy, and illustrate the difficulties of life for the incarcerated.
Finally assembling in the classroom, we greeted our UBB classmates, gathering for one last time. Our last and final meeting offered us the rare opportunity to ask our UBB classmates anything. This moment presented me with the most difficult of challenges, as I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to know the answers. Directing my query to prisoners serving sentences of life without parole, I asked about the repetitive and mundaneness of each day, questioning as to how they can wake up each morning when there’s perhaps nothing to look forward to.
One prisoner responded by asking me the same question. As I was gathering my thoughts he explained that prison is all he’s ever known as an adult, and that this was his life. Consequently he chooses to live life rather than just exist. He accomplishes this by both teaching and attending classes, reading, writing, exercising, meditating, and looking for beauty and life in unusual places.
Another prisoner who is someday looking forward to release spoke about what life after prison could look like to him. Asked about his future, he replied that he plans on continuing his education on the outside, perhaps in Law, Societies and Justice. He’s already received his A.A. in prison and wants to pursue a Bachelors of Arts degree after his release. Emphasizing how much he looks forward to our Friday classes, his enthusiasm and desire to excel were evident. “This is too important,” he said, referring to his education. I am confident that, if given the chance, he will succeed on the outside. He’s one of the more fortunate prisoners, however, having a close family network to support his re-entry to society.
Our mixed enrollment class provided us an opportunity to see first-hand the importance of education, especially in the prison system. This class meant something to all of us. For the prisoners, it provided for a place of learning that included rigorous in-person coursework with students from the University of Washington. For the LSJ students, it taught empathy, while further providing a small glimpse of life in prison. Moreover, it revealed that getting an education is not just about reading books; it is about students working together in an environment of learning, even if that environment is somewhere deep inside prison. Subsequently, regardless of the space, it’s clear that education is making a difference in the lives of prisoners. Education gives meaning to life. It provides opportunities. It challenges us to not only think, but also to question, evaluate, consider, and reflect. Consequently if we truly believe in reform and change then the choice is simple, education.
Reflecting on our time together, I am overcome with many emotions. Our class not only afforded us a forum to take a 400-level college course, but more importantly, it provided us a chance to learn from each other. Our UBB classmates demonstrated what it is to persevere, overcoming challenges that we couldn’t possibly imagine. Alternatively, we brought to them the outside world and perspectives from our own lives. For 10 weeks working side-by-side, we slowly gained each other’s trust, breaking down the barriers, shedding any preconceived notions we may have had about the incarcerated. We started together as strangers, but by the close of the quarter we ended our time together as both students and friends.
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.