Guess who’s coming to dinner? Students host prisoners.

Shannon Buckham

In the 1970s, Whitman professors ran a series of programs that brought students and inmates from the Washington State Penitentiary into close contact: maybe too close.

“The philosophy…was to increase the interaction between residents and free people,” said Professor of Physics, Emeritus Craig Gunsel, who initially became involved in the program after his wife encouraged him to volunteer.  

Through what was called the “Social Therapy Program,” prisoners mixed with Whitman students in the Olin Hall faculty lounge, and even went home with them through the “Take a Lifer to Dinner” program.   For the most part, these interactions took place without police supervision.  

“When I look back on some of things we did with some of those guys, it’s shocking nothing happened. We were rolling with some real hard guys,” said Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures Emeritus Dale Cosper.  

Cosper started the program in 1971, along with Lee Bowker and Paul Peterson, both professors at the time. Within two years Peterson and Bowker had left and Cosper was running the program. Gunsel took over in 1975.  

The then warden and associate warden were also Whitman alumni and very supportive of the programs, allowing them to expand.  

Through “Take a Lifer to Dinner” students would “check out” a convicted murderer and bring him home for a meal, before returning him to prison. There were no guards present during these exchanges, and according to Cosper, “a couple of those guys escaped while they were at people’s houses for dinner.”

“Looking back on it, it seems kind of naïve, but before…these programs were progressive, an effort to provide something different,” said Cosper.  

During their peak popularity, student participation in the programs reached between two and three hundred students.  

“Whitman students are very, very bright but they are also naïve,” Gunsel said.   “After they went out to the prison, they would come back still very bright, but less naïve.”

In 1979, an inmate stabbed an officer, instigating a prison lockdown. During this time, prisoners were not allowed to leave their cells at all. According to Gunsel, this event dramatically altered the culture of the penitentiary.    

Although shocking, the prison’s comparative laxity thirty years ago coincided with a record number of convicts earning Associate’s degrees: more, in fact, than in any other prison in the nation.   The prison currently offers only GED courses and English as a Second Language.  

“The hope was that if convicts were given the opportunity, they would take on responsibilities,” said Gunsel.