Behind bars: Willamette class goes to prison

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Behind bars: Willamette class goes to prison

8:33 a.m. PDT July 29, 2016

An earlier version of this story was corrected Thursday, July 28.

A politics class from Willamette University spent every other Monday this spring in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

They worked with inmates on such topics as clemency, juvenile rights and prison condition during the spring semester “Reforming Criminal Justice” politics class taught by professor Melissa Michaux.

“It’s one things to read about these issues. It’s another to have a person in front of you, sharing (his) story, with tears running down (his) face,” said Willamette student Kate Steffy, 21. “Having someone in front of you — that’s the kicker.”

Halfway through the semester, the students were put into groups to produce a tangible product — an amendment to a bill, a new proposal, a new bill, for example. These were sent to the appropriate offices — from the governor’s office to the Department of Corrections or the Department of Justice — in an effort to foster change.

Steffy said the hardest part was getting to know the adults in custody and having the class end.

“We all spent time together for the semester,” she said. “You become attached, and then at the end you leave and you realize you probably won’t ever see them again.”

Steffy said she was nervous during first few class sessions at the maximum-security prison in Salem, but eventually learned “most men inside are just trying to live their lives.”

“Eventually jail doors closing behind you (becomes) a normal part of the process,” she said.

Steffy said some Willamette students are now interested in becoming governor, defense lawyers or other related positions.

“We didn’t want the story to end with the class (finishing),” she said. “It was a life-changing class. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

However, it wasn’t always easy. One OSP student was put in solitary confinement during the semester, which Michaux said was heart-breaking.

Alex Tuchman took the class as a psychology major and said she was inspired to work in prison reform as her profession. She would like to become a criminal justice attorney and practice civil rights law for an organization such as The Innocence Project.

Prisoners are often the “people who are forgotten,” said Tuchman, 22, “but they all have a story to tell.”

Her group’s project focused on juvenile justice and Oregon’s “second look” programs for individuals who committed crimes before they turned 18 years old.

“It was an emotional experience getting to know the OSP students,” Tuchman said. “I was balancing feelings of ‘they committed a crime …’ but also really liking these men.”

More than a dozen men from the penitentiary, ages 23 to 50, completed the class. They did so as part of the restorative justice program but did not earn college credit.

“They are grappling with very big questions,” Michaux said. “How to live with their guilt; what to do with the horrible constraints under which they’re living.

“They are grappling with how to have a life of meaning.”

One adult in custody, Ernest, wrote a class reflection, saying: “One of the greatest honors in life is to be able to be a part of someone’s life while they are seeking knowledge. Thank you for letting me sit beside you, stand in front of you, and share with you — but most of all learn from you.”

Rabbi Avrohom Perlstein, chaplain at the penitentiary, helped lead the class from the penitentiary side.

He said one of the biggest challenges for the inmates was not having access to the internet to do the required research and writing. Additionally, the men didn’t have a quiet space to focus.

The class will be offered again next spring. Michaux and Perlstein are thinking of ways to involve different adults in custody but also provide new experiences for the men who took the class this year.

“If you interact with them as humans and treat them with dignity and respect, you’ll … get that back,” Perlstein said. “We need to (see) who they are as a whole rather than for the last bad thing they did.”

Steffy agreed, saying, “At the end of the day, this class taught me … how to treat other human beings with respect, no matter what (their) background is.”

Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745 or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate or http://www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist

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