UW Honors Students Study with Former Inmates, Break Stereotypes

Questioning stereotypes is an important part of the college experience, as UW Honors students learned yet again by attending classes with former prison inmates.

Below is the latest in our series of campus news articles that speak to the influence that honors students and programs have on their universities and larger communities. Previously, we published another story about students in the University of Oregon’s Clark Honors College who attended classes in prison with inmates who wanted to pursue higher education.

This post is an excerpt of an article by Catherine O’Donnell, who writes for the University of Washington News and Information service.

When Dolphy Jordan was 16, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison for first-degree murder, and served 21. He spent much of it in a six-by-nine-foot cell because that was the usual space for an inmate.

When discharged two years ago, Jordan was hungry for education.

During winter quarter, Jordan and other former inmates like him were in a class with people equally hungry for education: honors students at the UW.

And now the group, 10 former prisoners and eight honors students, has become the Post-Prison Community Collaboration Project. As part of its work, the group in April put on “People with Convictions,” an evening in Kane Hall featuring a discussion of prison life, a dramatic presentation and a dance performance that includes former prisoners.

“The Post-Prison class grew out of jury duty that became a life-changing event,” said Claudia Jensen, a UW affiliate professor who specializes in Russian music but ran the class as part of the Honors program.

Things started in February 2011, when Jensen’s husband, Brad Clem, was a juror in a case of three young men charged in a drug deal that included assault. He and Jensen were struck by the disparities between the young men and their own children who were about the same age but had had many more opportunities. This led Clem and Jensen to a post-trial conversation with defense attorney James Bible, and eventually to the Post-Prison Education Program, where they now volunteer as tutors.

The program helps former inmates with post-secondary education, and includes wraparound services – help with things like books, rent, groceries and child care.

Jensen, 57, taught her first honors course in spring 2011. She was struck by similarities between those students and the ones in the Post-Prison Program: “They want to get every drop out of their education. Everything I assign, they read; everything I ask, they do.”

Jensen suggested the post-prison class to Julie Villegas, associate director of the UW Honors
Program, and Rachel Vaughn, now director of the UW’s Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center, who supported and helped plan it.

Lizzie Reid, 47, is a member of the Post-Prison class and its resulting collaborative. She served three sentences, a total of almost five years, on drug charges. Reid is now in her fourth semester at Green River Community College in Auburn. She’s nailed a 4.0 average each semester, aiming for the University of Washington, a law degree and a career as a public interest attorney.
In a series of reflections for the class, Reid wrote that the grades “helped me to have more faith in myself, and to begin believing that things could truly be different.”

Jensen and the students recently submitted a 13-page summary of the Post-Prison class to the Harvard Educational Review for an upcoming book on the school-to-prison pipeline. Reid contributed an essay about how an abusive childhood made her lose interest in education. It grew out of one of her reflections.

Having availed himself of the Post-Prison Education Program, 39-year-old Jordan attends South Seattle Community College, aiming for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and a career helping kids at risk.

“I’ll be able to relate to kids,” he said. “Convey my experience so as to prevent them from making the same mistakes I did.” Meantime, Jordan works part-time as volunteer coordinator for the Post-Prison Education Program.

Both UW and Post-Prison students realized they have the same dreams about education making their lives rich and good. They also got rid of stereotypes. Some honors students were wary of associating with people who had served time but wound up organizing such things as a girls’ night out, not part of the class but rather, on their own. The former prisoners had wondered whether they’d be accepted, whether they’d fit in college. “But I found that I could fit. I did,” said 42-year-old Gina McConnell.

Ben Horst, a 20-year-old UW honors student, wrote about things he didn’t expect: “We both came here to learn, we wind up teaching each other more than we ever thought possible. We shattered stereotypes from the moment we sat down.”