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Learning behind bars

Learning behind bars

Learning behind bars Photo by Jaemi Yoo

UW students tutor at King County Jail

Andrew, a 24-year-old inmate, stares at me nonchalantly across the table.

He’s sitting two feet away, wearing a red cotton jumpsuit and white plastic sandals. A wave of anxiety hits me in the stomach. 

“It’s nice to meet you, I’m Kirsten,” I say, a little too rigidly, trying to hide my nerves.

I stick out my hand. He pauses, glances down at my extended hand, almost confused. Then he cracks a wide grin and laughs.

“Nice to meet you, too,” he says, giving me an exaggerated handshake.

I can’t help but smile. Andrew’s sense of humor is hardly what I expected to find here, in the otherwise bleak jail environment. I thumb through my folder, pull out a math worksheet and we begin a two-hour tutoring session.

Last September, I enrolled in a 2-credit class called EDUC 401 “Literacy in the Criminal Justice System.” One day a week, I volunteered at King County Jail and tutored inmates one-on-one who were working toward GED Certification.

I’ve tutored other students before — high schoolers, junior high schoolers, special needs students — but tutoring at a jail is different. Contact is limited to a handshake. Instead of a classroom, we work in a gray, nondescript building lined with drab concrete walls and lit with harsh, fluorescent bulbs. We write out problems with tiny, 2-inch, golf pencils and work through math problems with large, toy-like calculators. As a woman, I’m subject to stares on a male floor and eyed suspiciously by officers.

Before tutoring, I leave my belongings behind, pass through a metal detector, and push my driver’s license under a thick glass wall in exchange for a visitor’s badge. Entering any part of the building requires permission. Cameras monitor every move, and there’s always a sense you’re being watched. Pause too long or wander in the wrong direction, and a disembodied voice will crackle over the loudspeaker asking you what you’re doing.

My first tutoring session was nerve-racking. I didn’t know what it’d be like tutoring someone deemed a “criminal.” I feared being judged for my privilege as a UW student — not being able to find common ground with my student or unintentionally making him feel inferior.

Former tutor senior Danielle Carlson said she felt similar.

“I was afraid that I would be very naive,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to relate, or that I would say something offensive, and I definitely didn’t want to come off as above anybody. I was really nervous that I would be perceived as that.”

The UW tutoring class was started in 2004 by two AmeriCorps volunteers who were assigned to King County Jail to lead GED classes. One of the volunteers, law student Taylor Richman said his experience leading classes was so positive, he thought UW students would also benefit from teaching incarcerated adults.

“You see a very human element of the people in jail, and I think it really gives a different perspective,” he said. “You build a relationship with someone who has had very different life experiences than you, which is something often left out of learning at the university. So I thought it’d be really eye-opening.”

Richman and co-founder La Rond Baker approached faculty at UW’s Pipeline Project — an outreach program that places UW students in local, education-based service opportunities for credit — to start the class.

“Most people don’t get the opportunity to see the inside of a lockdown facility and how it functions,” Baker said. “I thought it was an important lesson for any educated person, who’s an active participant in society, to actually see what these places are like, and see how the people inside are treated.”

Unlike high schoolers or students at an elementary school who might be reluctant to dive into a sheet of math problems, most inmates badly want to learn. While in jail, their lives are confined to a small, enclosed space and they have minimal contact with the outside world. Learning is a chance for them to accomplish something.

“They don’t have a sense of control over when their relationships may end, so there’s just this feeling of impermanence and it undermines their ability to sense control or direction in their lives,” said Doug McManaway, tutor and recent UW graduate.

Inmates who earn a GED will be more eligible for jobs when they get out, and statistically they’ll be less likely to reoffend. In one study, those who had participated in education programs had 46 percent lower rates of recidivism than those who hadn’t taken classes, according to a 2005 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Before each tutoring session I’d ask my student to describe a bit about their educational background — where they attended school, what subjects they enjoyed learning, whether their learning experience was generally positive. When I asked Andrew that question — someone who, like many other inmates, hadn’t finished high school — there was a long pause. He looked up at the ceiling.

“Man,” he said. “School is just not something I’ve ever been good at.”

Experiences like Andrew’s are not uncommon, Baker said.

“When people have negative experiences or they’re targeted by their schools, or teachers tell them they’re a failure, that definitely has an impact on whether a person continues in school,” Baker said.

The hour has flown by. As Andrew and I finish up, I shut my folder and shake his hand one more time. He politely thanks me, stands up, and walks back toward his tank. I rise, push my chair in, walk the opposite direction toward the elevator, and buzz myself out of the building to freedom.

Reach New Editor Kirsten Johnson at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @kirstenj16

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