Unique Course Puts College Students, Inmates in Same Classroom


A course offered at the University of Washington on law and justice is bringing students and inmates together to be taught inside the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) at Monroe, a minimum security prison.

The senior seminar course was offered through the Law, Societies, and Justice (LSJ) program at UW.  Classmates for the course included 15 LSJ majors and 12 WSR inmates.  All inmate participants had previously taken college courses either before they had entered prison or through the University Beyond Bars program.

The course is taught by Steve Herbert, a previous winner of the school’s distinguished teaching award, who said he had several goals for the class.  While he hoped that the class would offer UW students the opportunity to witness some of the results of incarceration policy and to see that some stereotypes of long-term prisoners are not true, he added that his goal for prisoners was to create as close to a real UW classroom experience as he could.

“Working together helped humanize people who may well have done a horrible thing but are still struggling to not let that one act define who they are,” says Herbert. “These men were eager and willing to do the significant amount of work that this class demanded.”

Content for the 400-level course was unrelated to the criminal justice system, focusing instead on the law and the environment in an effort to put both sets of students on equal grounds because neither side had significant knowledge of the subject matter.

The class met once a week for three hours at a time, mixing lectures in with small group discussions, which were always a combination of students and inmates.  Herbert said the small groups worked so well that he began to devote more class time to them, adding that the two groups worked well with each other and that their relationship “grew organically.”

The course was taught through a partnership with the nonprofit University Beyond Bars, which offers college-prep and college-level courses to inmates at the Washington State Reformatory and the Minimum Security Unit, both in Monroe.

Changes to Washington’s criminal justice system are currently being considered by both conservatives and liberals, including reexamining parole and reviewing the length of prison sentences.  The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world with close to 716 out of every 100,000 people imprisoned.

A bill is expected to be considered when lawmakers reconvene that would end the prohibition on using state tax money to offer academic courses in prison, writes Katherine Long for The Seattle Times.

The positive reviews of the course has led Herbert to decide to teach the course on an annual basis, saying that it offers students interested in criminal justice system an inside look that they cannot obtain in a classroom setting.

“The biggest surprise is how normal the actual class and experience feels,” Herbert said. “It’s every bit as robust and engaged a conversation as I’ve had in any classroom, on or off campus, and it’s been very easy to create a strong classroom dynamic.”