Students learn alongside incarcerated classmates at Washington State Penitentiary

Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Feature Editor

At Whitman College, framed by exposed brick and wide open windows, students cut their teeth on abolitionist theory. A mile and a half from the center of Whitman’s campus, over 2,000 men are incarcerated — the second largest capacity of any prison in Washington State. 

Outside of specific classes and conversations, the existence of the Washington State Penitentiary (referred to colloquially as “The Penn” among locals, and the WSP henceforth) is scarcely acknowledged. In fact, before relaxed COVID-19 restrictions resurrected Professor Mitch Clearfield’s in-Penn philosophy classes, I had only heard talk of the WSP in the context of inmates incarcerated for notable crimes. Far more than any real desire to engage with our proximity to such an institution, this was a titillating piece of Walla Walla gossip.

Professor Clearfield’s courses in the WSP are small, even by Whitman’s standards — this semester brings two sections of eight students inside, each of whom went through a background check and involved selection process. In order to enroll, a student’s genuine interest in the course material must be evident, rather than interest in the WSP gossip mill.

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

After students are selected, cleared and briefed by Clearfield and employees of the Penitentiary, they’re ready for their first class “inside” where they’ll study philosophy alongside students incarcerated in the WSP. In these courses, each student follows the same curriculum and completes the same assignments. While valuing important differences among the class, Clearfield creates the sense of an integrated community. When I referred to students from campus as the “Whitman students,” he was quick to gently correct me.

“Every student in the class gets Whitman College credit,” Clearfield said. “And everyone is held to the same expectations — or equivalent expectations. In that sense, everyone’s a Whitman student. We’ve got students from campus and incarcerated students.”

Despite the connection and commingling that the courses facilitate, students’ vastly different backgrounds can cause tension and difficulty if not deftly navigated. Junior Ally Kim took Case Studies in Applied Ethics this past fall. Though she had only positive relationships with her incarcerated classmates, she spoke to the complexity of students’ vastly different circumstances.

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

Clearfield identified the creation of a safe space for honesty and disagreement as an early challenge of each semester, though he added that the courses’ first meetings swiftly erase preconceptions on both sides. In fact, one of the criteria used to select students from campus and from the Penitentiary is confidence that existing assumptions will not guide them.

“Humanity will always bring stereotypes and prejudices into any context,” Clearfield said. “I think that’s natural and inevitable; but, it’s important to have a commitment to overcome those as quickly as possible.”

Senior Lucy Wood also took Applied Ethics, and is currently enrolled in Restorative Justice. In response to a COVID-19 outbreak at the Penitentiary, the first six weeks of Applied Ethics took place over Zoom, but even its virtual portion was hugely impactful. Wood entered the experiences without many assumptions, but her encounters with her incarcerated classmates dispelled widely held biases.

“Many people assume that incarcerated individuals are not smart or tenacious, and while I didn’t have this assumption going into the class, I learned that quite the opposite is true,” Wood said in an email to The Wire. “I met some incredibly smart people at WSP who had an eagerness to learn that I have frankly never seen in classes with my Whitman peers.”

Helen Leinberger, a fellow senior and Applied Ethics student, echoed this sentiment.

“Everyone in the class was so kind, engaged and clearly passionate about learning,” Leinberger said. “Now my perspective has changed drastically.”

Such broadening of perspective is one of Clearfield’s key intentions in offering these courses. In providing this range of perspectives and backgrounds, the issues discussed in class become more personal and deepen conversations. This experience, he hopes, will help equip students with vital skills. 

In reflecting on her experience, Kim spoke about her bolstered ability to engage with views that differ from her own. 

“When advocating for our values, we tend to slip into defensive mindsets that limit our understanding of a multifaceted truth because it is ourselves and our egos that we serve to protect,” Kim said.

Clearfield doesn’t consider his courses to be a service to the WSP as a whole institution; rather, he appreciates the immense value of the experience for the students.

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

Past the initial hump of students’ differences, the largest challenge occurs at the end of the term when students from campus must say goodbye to their incarcerated classmates (and, often, friends). The policies of the Penitentiary and the course prohibit any communication after the conclusion of the course, making the final farewells especially painful. Clearfield spoke at length about the intimacy that the experience fosters and the difficulty of its jarring halt at the semester’s end.

“It is one of the most difficult aspects about the class, for sure,” Clearfield said. “It is something I talk with everyone about in advance. At the same time, I acknowledge that that probably won’t make it any easier … It’s tough. There probably are students who hold back a little bit because of it.”

“I didn’t fully anticipate the inexplicable feelings that would surface once the class ended,” Kim said.

Wood concurred.

“It is hard to become so comfortable with people and then never be able to talk to them or see them again,” Wood said. “I know that the communication restrictions are for safety, but it is still difficult.”

At the same time, Clearfield added, the knowledge of these limitations makes the time spent together feel more “precious,” increasing the degree to which students feel invested in every moment of class time. In hearing firsthand from students, this deep investment is clear. From moments of profound intensity, like witnessing the repercussions of a racially motivated fight within their section of WSP, to personal conversations, each person involved in the course communicated deep engagement.

This engagement doesn’t end with the course. Both Kim and Wood emphasized the impact Applied Ethics had on their future goals: Kim hopes to partner with organizations that enact change within prison systems, and Wood wants to work in reentry and career counseling for formerly incarcerated people, despite her complex feelings on working within the system. Both resolve not to take their educational access for granted.

Many of my interviewees described the stark realities of incarceration, and their inside classmates’ eagerness to learn. One way to increase access to education within prisons is by donating books, which can be done at Books to Prisoners