Students study alongside incarcerated classmates at Washington State Penitentiary – Whitman Wire

At Whitman College, framed by exposed brick and wide-open windows, students grappled with abolitionist theory. A mile and a half from the center of Whitman’s campus, over 2,000 men are being held – the second-largest capacity of any prison in Washington state.

Outside of certain classes and conversations, the existence of the Washington State Penitentiary (colloquially referred to locally as “The Pen” and henceforth WSP) is hardly acknowledged. In fact, before the eased COVID-19 restrictions revived Professor Mitch Clearfield’s in-pen philosophy classes, I had only heard of the WSP relating to inmates jailed for notable crimes. Far more than any real desire to grapple with our closeness to such an institution, this was a tingling bit of Walla Walla gossip.

Professor Clearfield’s courses at WSP are small, even by Whitman’s standards—this semester brings two groups of eight students, each of whom has gone through a background check and selection process. To enroll, a student’s genuine interest must be evident in the course material and not in the WSP gossip mill.

“Me and my partners want to make sure that all of the students are there in the class because they really want to engage with their classmates as individuals,” Clearfield said.

After the students are selected, cleared, and briefed by Clearfield and prison staff, they are ready for their first class “inside,” where they will study philosophy alongside students incarcerated at the WSP. In these courses, each student follows the same curriculum and performs the same tasks. While important differences between classes are appreciated, Clearfield creates a sense of an integrated community. When I referred to students off campus as “Whitman students,” he was quick to gently correct me.

“Every student in the class gets credit from Whitman College,” Clearfield said. “And everyone is bound by the same expectations – or equivalent expectations. In that sense, everyone is a Whitman student. We have off-campus students and incarcerated students.”

Despite the connection and blending that the courses enable, the vastly different backgrounds of the students can create tension and difficulties if not skillfully navigated. Junior Ally Kim took part in case studies in Applied Ethics last fall. Although she had only positive relationships with her incarcerated classmates, she spoke about the complexities of the students’ very different circumstances.

“There were some difficult moments where the reality of our material differences surfaced, when the topic of family for the holidays came up in conversation or when I was asked about my life goals and aspirations,” Kim said.

Clearfield identified creating a safe space for honesty and disagreement as an early challenge of each semester, but added that the first meetings of the courses quickly erase prejudices on both sides. In fact, one of the criteria used to select students from campus and from the correctional facility is confidence that existing assumptions will not guide them.

“Humanity will always bring stereotypes and prejudice into any context,” Clearfield said. “I think that’s natural and inevitable; but it is important to commit to overcoming them as soon as possible.”

Senior Lucy Wood also took Applied Ethics and is currently enrolled in Restorative Justice. In response to a COVID-19 outbreak in prison, the first six weeks of Applied Ethics took place via Zoom, but even the virtual portion was hugely impactful. Wood went into the experience without many assumptions, but her encounters with her incarcerated classmates dispelled widespread prejudice.

“A lot of people assume that incarcerated people aren’t smart or stubborn, and while I didn’t teach that assumption in class, I’ve learned that the exact opposite is true,” Wood said in an email The cable. “I met some incredibly bright people at WSP who had a passion for learning that I’ve honestly never seen in classes with my Whitman peers.”

Helen Leinberger, a fellow high school and applied ethics student, shared this view.

“Everyone in the class was so nice, engaging, and obviously passionate about learning,” Leinberger said. “Now my perspective has changed drastically.”

Such broadening of perspectives is one of Clearfield’s primary intentions in offering these courses. By providing this range of perspectives and backgrounds, the topics discussed in class become more personal and deepen the conversations. He hopes this experience will help equip students with life skills.

As she reflected on her experiences, Kim spoke of her strengthened ability to engage with views that differed from her own.

“When we stand up for our values, we tend to fall into a defensive mindset that limits our understanding of a multi-faceted truth because we want to protect ourselves and our ego,” Kim said.

Clearfield does not view its courses as a service to the WSP as a whole; rather he appreciates the immense value of the experience for the students.

“I believe [the course] really creates an opportunity to develop the skills, habits and mindset that enable difficult conversations to be productive,” said Clearfield. “It creates many new challenges beyond what students would normally encounter in either institution. I think the rewards for that can be huge, but it’s also difficult.”

After the initial differences between the students, the biggest challenge comes at the end of the semester, when campus students have to say goodbye to their incarcerated classmates (and often friends). Prison and course policies prohibit any post-course communication, making the final goodbye particularly painful. Clearfield spoke at length about the intimacy that fosters this experience and the difficulty that it ends abruptly at the end of the semester.

“It’s definitely one of the most difficult aspects of the class,” Clearfield said. “It’s something I talk to everyone about in advance. At the same time, I admit that this probably doesn’t make it any easier… It’s tough. There are probably students who are holding back because of that.”

“I didn’t anticipate the inexplicable feelings that would emerge at the end of the class,” Kim said.

Wood agreed.

“It’s hard to get so comfortable with people and then never talk to them or see them again,” Wood said. “I know the communications restrictions are for security, but it’s still difficult.”

At the same time, Clearfield added, knowing these limitations makes the time spent together feel more “valuable” and increases the degree to which students feel invested in every moment of class time. Hearing first hand from students, this high investment becomes clear. From moments of deep intensity, like witnessing the fallout of a racially motivated struggle in their WSP area, to face-to-face conversations, every person involved in the course showed a deep commitment.

This commitment does not end with the course. Both Kim and Wood emphasized the implications of Applied Ethics for their future goals: Kim hopes to work with organizations making change in prison systems, and Wood wants to work in re-entry and career counseling for ex-prisoners, despite her complex attitude to work in it the system. Both decide not to take their access to education for granted.

Many of the people I spoke to described the stark reality of imprisonment and their classmates’ eagerness to learn. One way to increase access to education in prisons is by donating books, which is possible at books for prisoners.


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