Bringing Melville to Monroe
For most courses she teaches, Anne Dwyer zips onto campus and into a classroom. But for a class offered autumn quarter with two UW colleagues, Dwyer drives nearly an hour, passes a checkpoint, locks her valuables in a locker, waits for an ID badge, walks through a scanner, gets her hand stamped, passes through a security gate, and shows her badge and stamp at a second checkpoint before reaching the classroom.
That’s just the reality of teaching at the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe.
Gillian Harkins (left) and Anne Dwyer
Dwyer, a graduate student in the UW Department of English, is co-teaching a college prep writing course at Monroe as a volunteer. She is one of a growing number of UW faculty and graduate students volunteering their time at the prison through a private non-profit group, University Beyond Bars (UBB). Many of them are also part of a UW working group exploring issues around prison education, funded through a grant from the Simpson Center for the Humanities.
Gillian Harkins, associate professor of English, initiated the Simpson Center project, Transformative Education Behind Bars (TEBB). She began volunteering at Monroe through UBB after seeing the statistics on racial and economic disparities in incarceration and how education reduces recidivism among people who have been released from prison. (According to a 2007 Bureau of Justice report, 67 percent of former prisoners are re-arrested within three years, but that rate drops to 22 percent for those who participate in college prison programs.) Harkins has tapped colleagues in disciplines ranging from sociology to biology to education to be part of TEBB.
“A lot of people at the UW do work related to prisons and education,” says Harkins. “TEBB brings us together to think about what’s possible. Can we provide quality higher education to people behind bars in our state? How does that fit in with our broader public education mission? Are there ways we can expand access to higher education that are cost effective and serve a greater good?”
"...If we don't provide better educational opportunities
they are in prison, it will be harder
succeed when they get out.''
Harkins explains that the UW does not offer courses for prisoners. Any courses the inmates take for university credit are offered through distance learning programs, with privately funded UBB covering tuition. The role of volunteers like Dwyer and Harkins is to provide support for prisoners in those efforts. Dwyer’s current class is a non-credit college prep course; she and Harkins recently led a reading group at Monroe.
For both teachers, the volunteer work stems from their interest in social justice. Dwyer has done literacy work; Harkins has been an activist involved with community-based violence prevention. “I realized people on the inside and people on the outside are quite similar,” says Harkins. “The difference is who gets opportunities for support and who gets targeted for punishment. Many people have a very narrow idea of who deserves support. But our social support systems, including our educational system, have failed a lot of people who end up inside. If we don’t provide better educational opportunities for people while they are in prison, it will be harder for them to succeed when they get out.”
At the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe, Ted Williams, Kimonti
Carter, Rashad Babbs, and Mickeil Silvera (from left) posed for a photo
during a University Beyond Bars graduation ceremony that recognized
all students who completed courses during the academic year.
Photo by Stacey Reeh..
Despite the hoops required to reach their classroom at Monroe, Harkins and Dwyer find that students there are, in many ways, familiar. “Their enthusiasm is really strong,” says Harkins, who has discussed writers such as Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, T.S. Eliot, and Jamaica Kincaid with the Monroe students. “There’s an impressive sense of curiosity and inquiry. They’re just as talented as other students we encounter.”
Yet the experience remains a far cry from what you’d find in a UW classroom. Despite the best efforts of some prison staff—“the correctional officers have been incredibly supportive in creating a learning environment in the Prisoners Activities Building,” says Dwyer—the reality is that there is little internet access, no computers for the students to use for writing assignments, and no flexibility in course planning. Perhaps most challenging of all, there is no opportunity for office hours.
“That one is really hard,” says Harkins. “When UW students need to reach us, we’re accessible. It’s the culture and climate of a university situation. At Monroe, they get to attend the class once a week and that’s it. They are getting an opportunity to learn, but within a very set schedule.”
While Dwyer has been teaching the college prep course at Monroe and Harkins is planning a college-level composition course winter quarter, they and others in the TEBB group also hosted a national conference on prison education, held on the UW campus in early November. It was the second annual conference (the first was at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) for educators interested in addressing this population.
“This is something happening nationally,” says Harkins. “There are programs all around the country aimed at providing higher education to people on the inside. It’s been really inspiring to see people at UW getting involved in this growing national movement.”
For more about TEBB, visit the Simpson Center’s TEBB page. UBB information can be found at universitybeyondbars.org.
Return to Table of Contents, November 2011 issue