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Fourth-year learning reaches behind bars

Students learn alongside inmates at correctional facility near Seattle.
University Business, March 2016
University of Washington law students can study the connections between culture, crime and criminal justice at a prison alongside inmates.
University of Washington law students can study the connections between culture, crime and criminal justice at a prison alongside inmates.

A little time in prison brings fourth-year University of Washington law students much closer to people impacted by the issues they’re studying.

Fourth-year Law, Societies and Justice students learn alongside inmates in a seminar class taught by program director and professor Steve Herbert at the Monroe Correctional Facility near Seattle.

This year’s course offering is “Culture, Crime and Criminal Justice”; previous focus topics have included “Law, Justice and the Environment” and “Geography and the Law.” The course grew out of a partnership between the school and University Behind Bars, a nonprofit organization that runs cooperative learning programs in Washington state prisons.

Students interact with each inmate during the semester through small discussion groups of four to five students. Group formations are shuffled every two weeks to further promote interaction among peers.

Herbert provides the same syllabus and holds similar expectations for the students and inmates in the class, now in its fourth year. Two shorter papers and one longer written project are graded on the same scale. “I’ve been very clear that I’m going to teach this class as I teach class on campus at UW,” says Herbert. “Prisoner-students welcome that. They have been fairly insistent on being treated just as UW students are.”

This mixed-enrollment classroom benefits both students and inmates, says Herbert. The university’s students get a deeper understanding of the justice system and the inmates under its supervision. Working with the prisoners humanizes the statistics and case studies that law students work with in traditional classes.

For inmates, though they are not officially enrolled in UW, the senior seminar provides greater advanced learning opportunities than previously offered by the University Beyond Bars program. UBB sponsors about 30 lower-level undergraduate courses for Washington State Reformatory and the Minimum Security Unit in Monroe, including a Saturday night art lecture series.

While the state of Washington doesn’t yet offer tuition assistance for prisoners and UBB classes remain non-credit, Herbert says, “they get to experience the university classroom as completely as they can.”

Correction facility course facts

Course name: Culture, Crime and Criminal Justice

Prerequisite: UW students must sign a waiver written by the university’s risk assessment office before they begin classes.

Number of meetings per semester: 10

Daily class prep: Security check upon entering the prison

Class format: Small group discussion followed by full group discussion

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