Rare UW class unites honors students, felons
A University of Washington honors class brought undergraduate students and former prisoners together to teach about the criminal-justice system.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
'People with Convictions'The program will feature a discussion of the U.S. prison experience and a performance by the Kagaka Lua Dance Ensemble. The program contains violence and nudity in the context of the prison experience and is not suitable for audiences under 18. April 11, 7 p.m., Kane Hall room 120 on the University of Washington campus. A donation of $5 is suggested.
It was a most unusual class.
Half the students were academic stars at the University of Washington, selected for the highly competitive honors program.
The other half were felons — people who had served time behind bars for crimes such as manslaughter, assault, forgery and drug possession.
The instructor for the UW course was Claudia Jensen, an expert in Russian music. And the focus was the Washington criminal-justice system, a subject alien to half the class and one the rest knew all too well.
"I didn't think we would have any common ground," said Gina McConnell, 42, a class participant, student at Seattle Central Community College and former prisoner who has served time for drug-related offenses, identity theft and fraud.
"I thought they came from privileged lives, and we wouldn't really be able to connect," she said. "And I was wrong."
For their part, the honors students at first weren't sure what to think, either.
"Oh, we're having a collaboration with students who are former prisoners? That's kind of cool," UW junior Ben Horst, a 20-year-old chemistry/biochemistry major, remembers thinking to himself on the first day of class.
"I was not fully aware of what I was getting myself into," said Horst. "This was completely removed from everything I've experienced so far."
Very quickly, the honors students and the former prison inmates found they had much in common, and in the end, they didn't want the class to be over.
They've decided to try to teach the university community what they learned with a presentation, "People with Convictions," Wednesday at Kane Hall on the UW campus.
The class Jensen designed was a one-time experiment for honors students, centered on a series of lectures by police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, state Department of Corrections officials and lawyers. Ten of the students enrolled were former prisoners pursuing community-college degrees, and eight were undergraduates in the honors program.
"It's been wonderful, miraculous," Jensen said. "They found how similar they really were. They were passionate about education and seizing every drop they could out of educational opportunities."
The honors students learned that mental illness and abuse — including substance, physical and sexual abuse — are often factors in the backgrounds of people who commit crimes.
"I thought I was the one learning from them, and it was pretty much the other way around," said Felise Kaio Jr., 34, who has served time for manslaughter and first-degree assault, and is now pursuing his associate degree at Bellevue College in digital media arts and sciences. "They were intrigued by the stories, the struggle, the pain and suffering."
In March, on the last day of class, he stood in front of his classmates and choked back tears as he described how swiftly he had gone from work release to a college campus, helped along by the nonprofit Post-Prison Education Program, where some of the honors students have started volunteering.
The privately funded program helps former prisoners finish their educations after they're released.
Kaio has formed a dance group, the Kagaka Lua Dance Ensemble, to perform traditional Pacific Island dances as a way to keep young people in the Pacific Island community connected to their culture and out of trouble. They'll perform during Wednesday's presentation.
Jensen, the instructor, said she came up with the idea for the class after serving on jury duty and then volunteering at the Post-Prison Education Program.
"I don't think anybody is asking anyone to feel sorry for these people — they have committed crimes, and they've acknowledged they committed these crimes," she said. "Now, they are trying their very best to make a contribution to society. They know what they need is education."
During the class, the former prisoners relished the chance to ask a judge, police officer and prosecutor questions about what they see as inconsistencies in the criminal-justice system.
For example, they wanted to know how they could possibly earn any money in prison, where the rate of pay for work by inmates is about 40 cents an hour, to help clear their debts and have something saved up for when they are released.
The answers to many of the questions, Jensen said, is that officials are constrained by laws set down by the state Legislature, and don't have as much leeway as it might seem.
Former prisoner William Smith said he came away with a better understanding of the regulations that tie the hands of criminal-justice officials.
"You can't put them all in the same box, just like you can't put all prisoners in the same box," said Smith, 44, who said he served time for possession of cocaine and is now working on his associate degree at Seattle Central Community College.
For the honors students, one of the most striking issues is how few resources are available after prisoners are released. Studies show that people convicted of crimes have a much lower recidivism rate if they complete their education, but there are few programs to help them accomplish that goal.
Honors student Gillian Kenagy, a 20-year-old junior majoring in environmental studies, said she learned "just how many obstacles they face in bettering themselves."
Horst, the chemistry/biochemistry major, said the class has caused him to view strangers in a different light. Now, when he sees a man on the bus talking to himself, he thinks, "There must be something behind that. There's something that put him in that state."
"This was a life-changing class for all of us," Horst said. "I look at people differently now."
Smith said he views honors students in a different light as well.
"A lot of them come from privilege, and we don't come from privilege," he said. "It really did break down barriers and educate. I wish everyone had an opportunity at some point in their lives to experience something like that."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or email@example.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.