Breaking Down the Walls: Lessons From Freedom Education Project Puget Sound

On a Thursday evening, beneath the fluorescent lights of a classroom in Gig Harbor, Wash., Rebekah Lyons pores over an essay she’s writing for a sociology class on gender oppression. She’s chosen to write about the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and she reads her work aloud, noting a spot that needs a better transition.

It’s a typical classroom scene, where other students sit in rows of desks chattering about scatter plots and independent variables, and bulletin boards display past projects. But outside, there is a chain-link fence topped with curls of barbed wire, glittering in the lights of the parking lot. Rebekah is an inmate in the Washington Corrections Center for Women, the largest women’s prison in the state, and she is at a study hall for Freedom Education Project  Puget Sound (FEPPS), a program that provides college classes for incarcerated women and transgender and nonbinary people housed there.

She recently spent seven months in “the hole”—solitary confinement. “What I had waiting for me when I got out was FEPPS,” she says. “It’s what keeps me from making stupid decisions. It makes me feel like I’m doing something that’s going to count outside.” Rebekah is now a student leader and a member of the FEPPS advisory council. When she’s released, she hopes to become a social worker so that she can help prevent at-risk youths from getting involved in drug use and criminal activity.

Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. FEPPS aims to break the cycle of incarceration and reduce recidivism by providing students with skills that can afford them fulfilling employment and economic stability after they’re released. (Prisoners who participate in correctional education programs have been shown to be 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don’t.) Another benefit of the program is that it enriches the lives of the students both inside and outside the prison by bolstering their confidence. Education plays a critical role in building self-esteem and self-efficacy, and can create new pathways as a result, paving the way for meaningful future employment and healthier relationships and setting an example for the students’ children and family members, thereby preventing future generations from ending up in prison as well.

The vision for FEPPS began when a group of incarcerated women formed an organization called the Women’s Village in 2009 with the goal of gaining programs and services that would create positive change and reduce violence inside the prison. After learning that some men’s prisons had access to classes for college credit, the Women’s Village reached out to University of Puget Sound professors including Tanya Erzen, associate research professor of religion and gender and queer studies, Stuart Smithers, professor and chair of religious studies, and Robin Jacobson, professor of politics and government, and Evergreen State College sociology professor Gilda Sheppard to discuss the possibility of creating a higher-education program for the prison.

Tanya, Stuart, Robin, and Gilda co-founded FEPPS in 2011, and in January of 2012, they began offering classes inside the prison. A year later, Tacoma Community College began transcripting the program’s courses for credit toward an Associate of Arts degree. The classes maintain the same standards of academic rigor as those taught on the Puget Sound and Evergreen campuses.

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Tanya Erzen
Tanya Erzen

Before coming to work at Puget Sound, Tanya taught college classes in a women’s prison in New York and had always found herself drawn to work around prison reform. A fierce advocate for transformative justice, she’s fueled by a deep passion for learning and teaching, and believes that education is especially powerful as a tool for disadvantaged communities to rebuild their lives. “If you’ve been told for so long that college is not even a possibility, if your parents didn’t even go to college, to have that opportunity is really empowering,” she says.

In 2016, Tanya created an experiential learning class for Puget Sound students called Prisons, Gender, and Education, which focuses on the history and purpose of prisons and the power dynamics of mass incarceration. It has become a highly popular course; so far, more than 65 students have taken it. In the classroom, students read works by authors such as French philosopher Michel Foucault and activist and scholar Angela Davis. And once a week, they visit the corrections center, sliding books through plastic tubs at the metal detectors on their way in, to participate in a study hall with the incarcerated students. 

Rather than presenting the study halls as tutoring sessions, as similar college programs do, Tanya breaks down power dynamics by referring to Puget Sound students as “co-learners” who study side by side with the incarcerated students. “The idea is to build relationships between the students,” Tanya says.

Priti Joshi, an English professor at Puget Sound, has been involved with FEPPS almost since its inception and is passionate about bringing higher education to underrepresented students. Previously, she directed the Rutgers College Equal Opportunity Fund summer program for first-year students and Rutgers University’s Basic Writing program. She sought out FEPPS as soon as she learned about it, joking that she “hounded” Tanya. She has been teaching in the prison program since 2012 and also sits on the organization’s board of directors.

Priti explains that the study halls were requested by early FEPPS students who sought a quiet refuge where they could concentrate and help each other with homework. When she taught an English class unit about odes, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Pablo Neruda’s “An Ode to Salt,” Priti asked her FEPPS students to produce their own odes to test their understanding of the form. One of the students wrote an ode to silence, and the others immediately identified with the sentiment. Silence, they agreed, was scarce and deeply longed-for in prison, where noise was everywhere.

Rebekah, the aspiring social worker and a proud A student, says she finds space for reading by asking her cellmate to wear headphones while watching TV, and she jots down notes while she’s at work in the kitchen’s stockroom. She writes her essays in the study hall, and is constantly working out ideas in her head.

Tanya has found that FEPPS provides a positive outlet for the incarcerated women that helps them discover their  own leadership. One previously withdrawn FEPPS student started a group for moms, teaching them how to read, and another started a group for discussing gender issues. “When you give them a sense that they actually can do this, they rise to the occasion. Many have never been treated as though what they have to say is valuable,” Tanya says.

Felice Davis, associate superintendent of programs at the corrections center, echoes the transformative effect that FEPPS has had on the students. “I’ve definitely seen women come out of their shells,” she says. “Very quiet women start saying, ‘I want this to be my future. I’m excited about this.’”

That's when I realized, not only can we do this, but we can bring down the house. Their engagement and excitement was a sign that these walls were crumbling."

– Priti Joshi

Not all FEPPS students can look forward to starting over on the outside, and gaining a degree isn’t always the primary objective. One incarcerated woman named Andy has been taking classes since the program began, before it was accredited. She is a “lifer,” sentenced until 2063. Andy is working toward her associate degree because she wants to make her son proud. “I love learning,” she says. “Knowledge is power.” There is also a humanity to the program that draws her in. Asked about her first impressions of the FEPPS classes, she says simply: “They treated us like students.”

Tanya says that the program is designed to instill a sense of self-worth in FEPPS students by raising expectations for them. “The program humanizes people. We offer classes of the same rigor and quality, we treat people the same as we would on the outside, and there’s a process of restoring dignity and humanity that happens through that,” she says.

Ally Isenhour ’20, a student in Tanya Erzen's Prison, Gender, and Education class, chats with an incarcerated student during study hall. Co-learning is a vital part of the FEPPS program.
Ally Isenhour ’20, a student in Tanya Erzen's Prison, Gender, and Education class, chats with an incarcerated student during study hall. Co-learning is a vital part of the FEPPS program.

FEPPS has come to embody and elevate the liberal arts values of Puget Sound, in terms of encouraging critical thinking and interdisciplinary learning. As students gain new understanding and become inspired, the results can be transformative and galvanizing. Priti remembers leading a particularly lively discussion about Shakespeare’s Othello with her FEPPS students, who grew animated and excited, shouting out answers as Priti stood on a chair scrawling their responses on a chalkboard. To her surprise, a security guard suddenly materialized at the door, concerned that the raised voices were the sound of a violent struggle breaking out. In the prison, it had been previously unthinkable that shouting stemmed from intellectual energy. “That’s when I realized, not only can we do this, but we can bring down the house,” Priti says. “Their engagement and excitement was a sign that these walls were crumbling.”

The prison’s staff has witnessed firsthand the powerful effects that liberal arts education can have on an incarcerated community, including a noticeable change in the tone of the prison. Felice attests that FEPPS has had positive effects for her team at the corrections center and praises how enthusiastically they have supported the program, noting that the prison employees enjoy talking to the students about what they’re learning in class. “They’re really engaged in these conversations with the incarcerated population. At every level, we work closely with FEPPS, and they really see the difference in the women, as well,” she says. “We all think that [the program] is important and certainly contributes to public safety and to the safety of staff who work in the prison. It has taken my team and the FEPPS team being collaborative, open, and innovative to make the program as successful as it is.”

There is a growing movement of liberal arts colleges adopting similar programs. In 2014, FEPPS joined the Bard Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison, which includes schools in 15 states. Tanya feels that there’s a direct connection between these programs and the schools’ educational philosophies. “What better way to exemplify the value of a liberal arts college education than to show that it’s working both at a space on campus and in a prison, as well?” she says. “We’re giving people an opportunity to get this really rigorous, broad education, and to use that to rebuild their lives outside. If you want a practical application, I can’t think of a better one.”

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The co-learning aspect of the study hall creates a liminal space that transcends the prison walls, a place to foster collaboration and generate a mutual exchange of ideas. Tanya says, “In that connection between the university and the outside, there’s a space that’s breaking down the walls, where students can think collectively about alternatives to the prison-industrial complex. When we imagine prisoners as students, we are seeing them differently. That’s part of a process to imagine a different world.”

At the first study hall she attended, Bella Faith ’20 bonded with the incarcerated students over a particularly formidable statistics problem that managed to stump all of them. “It took me back to high school, when you’re working with your friends and you’re trying to figure out a math or science problem,” she says. “You’re looking at it from all these different angles, and you just can’t get it. We started laughing about it, and the women were calling it ‘astronaut math.’ We were all in it together, and it didn’t feel that different.” 

Bella, who is double-majoring in religious studies and politics and government and studying Arabic, says that spending time in study hall has opened her eyes to the reality of the prison system in a way that readings alone couldn’t, and has inspired her to commit to searching for solutions for mass incarceration. She intends to pursue a career in politics at an embassy in the Middle East after graduation and hopes to use what she’s learned to advocate for safer and more humane conditions in prison, especially for women, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ prisoners.

Throughout the years, the study halls have expanded into additional programs and involved more campus partners. Tanya is working with Ben Tucker, social sciences liaison librarian at Collins Memorial Library, on a new research collaboration pilot program, so that FEPPS students can request research materials that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Puget Sound’s Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching also offers a class on academic skills for new FEPPS students so they can learn how to study and strategize. Puget Sound students have launched UPS Students for FEPPS, an advocacy group that aims to get other students involved in the program and includes 20 members who organize film screenings and speaker events on campus.

FEPPS has even spawned a monthly film and lecture series at the corrections center organized by Puget Sound faculty members, as well as a critical inquiry discussion group, which involves a group of Puget Sound professors and students who meet monthly with FEPPS students to discuss readings in depth. There is a workshop series on gender identity co-organized by FEPPS students and gender and queer studies students at Puget Sound, and in 2018, the corrections center started its own Ethics Bowl.

There is a dynamic exchange of ideas at work, and the flow goes both ways. Priti says that while she was teaching a unit about fairy-tale adaptations in the correction center, a FEPPS student raised her hand to read her assignment aloud to the class. It was an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, about a young girl visiting her mother—who had killed the girl’s werewolf father to protect her daughter—in prison. The piece was so stunning, “you could hear a pin drop,” Priti says. Now, with the student’s permission, Priti uses that story as an example of fairy tale adaptations in her English 220 class at Puget Sound.

As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others. We figure out what is possible in the world by what others show us is possible."

– Tonya Wilson, 2017 FEPPS valedictorian

The FEPPS experience is often described as life-changing for Puget Sound students, who take the lessons they learned in the prison study halls into their careers after college. Amanda Diaz ’18 is now working as a community organizer with One America, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that advocates for immigrant rights, education, economic and environmental justice, and voting rights at the local, state, and national levels by building power in immigrant communities. “FEPPS has given me a deeper understanding of the intersections of the criminal justice system and how it directly affects immigrants, refugees, and people of color in their plight to demand basic needs and rights in the United States,” she says. 

Anna Goebel ’18, now an investigator with a state public defender’s office, was so moved by the Commencement speech from Tonya Wilson, the 2017 FEPPS valedictorian, that she keeps a quote framed in her office. It reads: “As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others. The human race is one of emulation. We figure out what is possible in the world by what others show us is possible. Many of us had narrow ideas of what was possible. But, now, when we refuse to be inadequate, when we refuse to play small for the world, well, then this happens.”

Those words echo the sentiments of thinkers such as Angela Davis and Octavia Butler, whose writings have emphasized the importance of long-range vision for social justice movements: The first step toward a new future is to be able to think beyond the boundaries of the current moment.

Within nearly a decade, the Women’s Village inside the corrections center has grown from five members to more than 200, and it has succeeded in reducing violence and empowering women through educational programs. In the five years since its accreditation, FEPPS has offered 129 classes taught by more than 100 professors to 252 women. Of those women, 35 have earned associate degrees, and many are now living on the outside, transforming their lives by pursuing new goals. Rebekah will soon be one of them. Her expected release date is in early July, and she’ll have her FEPPS education to help her make a fresh start.

Tanya is proud of the impact the program has had on Puget Sound students, and optimistic about the outlook for the FEPPS graduates. “You see self-efficacy, you see community-building, you see people being more engaged and finding their voice,” she says. “They say: I can succeed in this. I am more than what people have told me I am.”


By Julianne Bell ’13
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Jan. 28, 2019