- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

CONNELL, Wash. (AP) - While their paths may be different, the overall goal remains the same - education.

Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College at the Coyote Ridge Correctional Center team up every year for the Prison Debate Project, a program that brings together students from both establishments for a debate in front of nearly 100 inmates at the prison in Connell, Wash.

Starting in 2012 with a grant from the Open Society Foundation, CRCC staff was looking to provide additional educational opportunities to inmates who had already received an associate of art degree while incarcerated, said Loretta Taylor, corrections education director for Walla Walla Community College at CRCC.

“We were finding that as our students would graduate, they were trying to slow up their graduation because they wanted to continue to be involved in classes and graduation,” she said, adding that led to the formation of a debate club.

Approximately 15 WSU students are selected each semester for the program, said Amber Morczek, Ph.D. candidate for the WSU criminal justice and criminology department. They and 15 student inmates are split up into two teams and given a question to debate at the end of the semester. This semester’s topic was whether or not women are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration.

Morczek said the original goal was to introduce WSU students to the prison system and inmates, as there aren’t many other programs that can get students that experience.

“I think the most important part is that students get an opportunity to be outside the classroom and see things as they are in the real world,” said Roger Schaefer, Ph.D. candidate for the WSU criminal justice and criminology department.

WSU junior McCennah Parsons said the best part of the program was being able to speak with the inmates.

“There is no other way I could have gotten that experience,” she said. “I was nervous only because I didn’t know what to expect. You’re entering a whole different world, with their rules, and you don’t want to do something wrong and come off as offensive. I was more afraid of how I would be conducting myself.”

Taylor said both groups of students were nervous beforehand. The inmates were worried they wouldn’t be as articulate or prepared as the WSU students, she said. Working together during four visits to the corrections center, Parsons said, the inmates were able to bring a whole new perspective to the argument that WSU students couldn’t. The WSU students had a great deal at their disposal with access to the Internet and the university’s libraries, but the student inmates had personal experience, she said.

“They helped us see aspects of the system that we never thought of. They had the life perspective,” Parsons said.

Schaefer said the debate gives the inmates a sense of pride after completion. It’s important for them to have a sense of self-value when they leave prison and are trying to turn their life around, he said.

“It gives the prison students a sense of confidence when they see they have been prepared through their education here and that they will be able to do well at the university level,” Taylor said.

Having only started in 2012, about 15 inmates have been released since receiving an associate of art degree, she said. She estimated 80 percent of them have gone on to universities.

Taylor said it is also great to see the WSU students realize the inmates are real people with hopes and dreams.

“It allows the students to see them as humans, as opposed to just a number or face in the crowd,” Morczek said.

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Information from: The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, https://www.dnews.com

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