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Rethinking Punishment: Challenging Mass Incarceration in Washington State

November 30, 2016

The 2015–2016 academic year was a busy one for the Rethinking Punishment project, a UWCHR-supported initiative combining teaching, research, and public advocacy to promote human rights-focused approaches to problems of violence and mass incarceration. An ambitious agenda, and one that is setting the stage for new projects that could change the way that Washington State approaches criminal justice.

During Fall quarter 2015, Prof. Steve Herbert’s “mixed-enrollment” Law, Societies and Justice seminar brought UW students together with classmates at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, in a partnership with the non-profit University Behind Bars. As with previous mixed-enrollment classes, participants remarked on the academic rigor of the seminar, and the level of preparation and insight shown by the students at Monroe. “Every week, there were statements and claims that I could just never get on the UW campus,” UW student Nathan Bean told Seattle Times reporter Katherine Long, in an article about the program published in December 2015.

Face-to-face collaboration and exchange between students inside and outside of prison challenges preconceptions and provides all participants with opportunities for personal growth. “I think, in our culture, there is an image of what a prisoner is, and we can provide some perspective,” Devon Adams reflected in an interview with the Seattle Times. “Maybe that’s one way we can give back to our community.” Adams recently completed a bachelor’s degree in history while serving time at Monroe. Mixed-enrollment courses continue in Fall quarter 2016 with a seminar by Professor Katherine Beckett exploring issues of criminal justice policy and possibilities for reform.

Prof. Katherine Beckett is also working to highlight stories of personal transformation and challenge the “myth of monstrosity” which underlies discussions of violence and mass incarceration in the United States. In an article published this summer in The American Prospect, Prof. Beckett argues that calls for criminal justice reform must be extended to crimes involving violence: “Incarcerating people who commit acts of violence—people who are often from the same disadvantaged neighborhoods, and have often also been the victim of violence in the past—for extended periods in inhumane conditions is not an effective response to this problem,” she writes.

In partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Cited Podcast, Prof. Beckett also coordinates the Rethinking Punishment Radio Project. Cited Podcast’s debut episode, “Superpredators Revisited,” tells the story of Jeff Coats, who was 14 years old when he kidnapped David Grenier and stole his car in Tacoma, Washington. 20 years later, Jeff and David reflect on the crime and how it restructured their lives, while Prof. Beckett provides sociological perspective for the rise of mass incarceration in the 1970s and 1980s. New episodes of the Rethinking Punishment Radio Project on Cited Podcast are in production and will be released soon.

UW faculty and students are also researching alternatives to mass incarceration—and working to implement them in Washington State. Programs based in restorative justice, which bring responsible parties and survivors together to repair the harms caused by crime, offer one such alternative. Martina Kartman, an LSJ alum and third year student and Gates Scholar at the UW School of Law, received support from the Center for Human Rights for a research fellowship with the Rethinking Punishment project. Kartman participated in trainings with two different restorative justice projects currently operating in the United States, both of which take on cases involving violence, have demonstrated institutional success, and could serve as models for Washington State.

In June 2016, Kartman and Prof. Beckett published the results of this research in a report, Violence, Mass Incarceration and Restorative Justice: Promising Possibilities, which describes and analyzes various restorative justice programs. The report focuses on the Insight Prison Project, which works with men, women and youth in prisons and jails in California and two other states. With a unique and holistic curriculum, IPP facilitates activities including Survivor Speaker Panels and Victim Offender Education Groups, which bring incarcerated individuals and crime survivors together to share their stories and work towards accountability. At the invitation of Beckett and Kartman, Insight Prison Project staff members Ayoola Mitchell and Troy Williams shared their experiences with restorative justice at a September 30 panel at UW School of Law.

The Rethinking Punishment project’s most exciting and impactful work is on the horizon. Prof. Beckett and Kartman plan to implement restorative justice circles based on Insight Prison Project’s model in two prisons at Monroe Correctional Complex, with trainings for facilitators potentially starting as soon as Winter quarter 2017.