TACOMA, Wash. – As President Obama was considering his final priorities in office, the White House took note of a series of partnerships blooming across the country offering college classes to people in prison.
It looked like a good idea. So University of Puget Sound and nine other colleges and universities involved in prison education programs were invited to come to D.C. and talk about it. Representatives from the 10 programs will meet May 5 to share plans and ideas with Obama senior administrators in an informal roundtable at the White House. The focus will be on how higher education institutions can support renewed efforts for criminal justice reform.
Puget Sound Academic Dean Kris Bartanen and Associate Research Professor Tanya Erzen will attend and share information about the Freedom Education Project (FEPPS), a four-year-old nonprofit venture that brings professors from six Washington universities to teach college-level courses at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor.
FEPPS, directed and co-founded by Erzen, is one of about 150 college-prison educational partnerships in the United States. The project recently was brought under the umbrella of Puget Sound’s Civic Scholarship Initiative (CSI), which focuses campus scholarly work on community needs.
“This panel conversation will help us get the word out about our joint vision for high-quality college education classes for people in prison,” Erzen said. “It also puts weight behind our efforts to create a national organization of college-prison partnerships that could become a resource for new programs and help shape best-practice policies so we can continue to offer courses with academic rigor.”
FEPPS was founded by Puget Sound professors Tanya Erzen, Stuart Smithers, and Robin Jacobson, and Evergreen State College professor Gilda Sheppard in 2013. Currently 140 women are enrolled in college classes at the WCCW institute. With the help of 75 volunteer professors from seven Washington state universities and colleges, including 23 professors from Puget Sound, the program has provided 74 courses since its inception.
Renee Houston, associate dean for experiential learning and civic scholarship at Puget Sound, says the addition of FEPPS to other Civic Scholarship Initiative programs opens the door for reciprocal learning experiences that benefit both Puget Sound students and the women at WCCW.
“As we engage in this joint educational project, there is great potential for transforming the lives of the WCCW women in a way that aligns with the university’s educational and service mission,” Houston said. “This type of program connects the university and the community in a productive and supportive collaboration.”
Student enthusiasm for the project is clear. Erzen is offering a new fall 2016 experiential learning class, Prisons, Gender and Education, which will involve students in FEPPS. The class is already full and has a wait list.
“Once a week they will meet with me, and one day a week they will tutor math and science in the prison study hall and co-learn with the students there,” Erzen said. “Both sets of students have something to learn from each other. The Puget Sound students will also have a reflection circle, so they can process what happens in the prison.”
For the past year a handful of volunteer Puget Sound students have been working with the female students at WCCW.
Carsen Nies ’17, a biology major and volunteer, said the experience “instilled in me a desire to pursue a life dedicated to prison reform. It showed me how transformative access to higher education can be.”
FEPPS students who complete their classes can earn an Associate of Arts and Science degree from Tacoma Community College that will transfer to any four-year institution in the state. On June 14 the first five students will graduate, with about a dozen more expected next year. Class options include English, math, sociology, oceanography, biology, Shakespeare, environmental science, American government, global religions, and introduction to higher education, among other things.
According to a Rand Corporation 2013 study, people who go to college while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who do not. Women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population, reports the American Civil Liberties Union.