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Whitman students partner with state prisoners to discuss mass incarceration

Washington State Penitentiary
Photo courtesy Shari Hall (WSP)

Twenty Whitman students and 18 inmates from the Washington State Penitentiary education program sat side by side beneath the fluorescent lights of the prison's family visiting room.

Under a long line of folding plastic tables, the Whitman students' colorful sneakers and stylish black boots were interspersed with the inmates' pristine white New Balances, which bore no marks of outdoor weather. The students had gathered for the final town hall presentation of their work in "Rhetoric, Civic Engagement, and Incarceration," a class that had met weekly at the penitentiary since early September.

Taught by Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Studies Heather Hayes, the course format was intended to encourage diverse and critical thinking.

"We wanted a model with lots of different perspectives," she said.

To realize her vision, Hayes worked closely with former Whitman sociology and environmental studies professor Reid Helford, who now teaches full-time at the penitentiary.

The course, which Hayes describes as a pilot program, was not part of the official penitentiary curriculum. Hayes hopes she will soon be able to secure Whitman funding for it and even offer Whitman credit to the incarcerated students who take part.

Hayes centered the course around Michelle Alexander's bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. After reading the book, the class broke into nine small groups, each comprised of both Whitman students and inmates. Then the groups all chose a theme related to the U.S. prison system and spent weeks preparing eight-minute speeches for the town hall presentation.

Sociology major Emily Volpert '17 noted the challenges posed by collaborating on projects with inmates, who don't have access to email or electronic document sharing. Unable to communicate with their partners during the week, she said the students used class time to write out their speeches by hand.

"It brings you back to a really elementary form of how to do work," she said.

Another obstacle was the incarcerated students' restricted research capabilities. The penitentiary computers don't have internet access, so they were limited to academic databases. To bridge the gap, Whitman students often conducted research back on campus and then presented their findings to their groupmates during class.

Challenges like these, as well as the penitentiary setting and inmates' unique perspectives on the material, set the innovative new course apart from other Whitman offerings.

"It's more like an experience than a class," said Lilly Calman '19.

The course was novel for the incarcerated students as well, offering them a rare opportunity to voice their opinions about their experience in prison.

As the inmates spoke, Superintendent Donald Holbrook and Associate Superintendents Chris Bowman, Carla Schettler and Robert Jackson lined the back of the room, along with four guards. All of them clapped after each speech.

Just before the intermission, Jeremy Gullet, an incarcerated student, stood up to protest the disenfranchisement of felons.

"I'm grateful that through everything I still have my head and I still have my heart," he concluded. "Now I just need to find my voice."

Gullet said that the 2016 presidential election had made him realize the importance of voting, which his felony record precluded.

"I just want be a part of it," he said. "I just want to be normal."

Published on Dec 16, 2016
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