Gillian Harkins Awarded Barclay Simpson Prize for a Decade of Prison Education Work

Gillian Harkins

“She is known across the country not only for her deeply collaborative work in Washington state but also for her influential writing on prison education.”

When Gillian Harkins first started volunteering with University Beyond Bars (UBB), she noticed that while many UW faculty and graduate students did work related to prisons and education, few were speaking to each other about it. In the hopes of working collaboratively to develop streamlined and rigorous course offerings while thinking critically about how best to be accountable to the students they served, Harkins started the Transformative Education Behind Bars (TEBB) working group through the Simpson Center in 2009.

Since then, Harkins, a UW Associate Professor of English, has facilitated a number of projects that center currently and formerly incarcerated people while collaborating with various groups to identify and develop pathways from inside prison to college campuses. From TEBB and the 2011 National Conference on Prison Higher Education to the 2018-2019 Prison Education Collaboration and the seminar Collaboration Across Walls: Public Scholarship as Means or Ends,” Harkins has worked with a wide range of leaders, students, faculty, staff and activists across a variety of programs, campuses, and communities to help build coalitions dedicated to increasing access to higher education for those who face the greatest barriers to it.

It is this collaborative work that is being celebrated by the Barclay Simpson Prize for Scholarship in Public. This is the third time the prize, which carries an award of $10,000, has been given. Named for the philanthropist who endowed the Simpson Center for the Humanities in honor of his father, the Barclay Simpson Prize is meant to recognize UW faculty who practice humanities scholarship as a public good. The winner is selected by the Executive Board. “What so impressed the board is Gillian Harkins’ profound dual commitment to both building programs and networks to make higher education available to incarcerated adults and to writing about it,” says Kathy Woodward, Director of the Simpson Center and Professor of English. “She is known across the country not only for her deeply collaborative work in Washington state but also for her influential writing on prison education.”

Honoring History, Working Collaboratively

Harkins has always understood community activism as a part of, rather than apart from, her scholarship. While a grad student at UC Berkeley, Harkins conducted research on literary and legal representations of gendered harm while working with generationFIVE, a Bay Area organization dedicated to ending sexual violence through transformative justice. “There wasn’t much separation between the questions I was asking in my research and in the activist community,” says Harkins.

After joining the UW English Department in 2002, Harkins “saw the numbers on education and the prison system in Washington—these big racial and economic disparities” and decided to focus on access to public education in her new home state. As a volunteer first with UBB, and then with the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound (FEPPS), as well as the Black Prisoner’s Caucus Taking Education and Creating History (BPC-TEACH) program, Harkins says she “learned a lot in those early phases.” “I realized that honoring the histories of these programs is a very important part of the work.  What looks like a college in prison program is really the life’s work of so many people, it’s a movement shaped from community members both inside and out.”

Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound (FEPPS) Board Member and co-founder Shajuanda Tate

Harkins gestures to the work of FEPPS Board Member and co-founder Shajuanda Tate. Tate knows all too well the many barriers that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people face trying to gain a college education. She also knows how to overcome them. “My goal is to help show people that the people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solutions,” she says.

Before serving time at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), Tate had tried to enroll in college. But because Washington State disallows people who collect benefits from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) from enrolling as full-time students, Tate was barred from entering college. Instead, she found herself at WCCW, where there were only a few higher ed programs, though none were degree bearing, due, in part, to the 1994 elimination of federal funding for prison higher ed. Still, Tate signed up for classes, steeping herself in the work of ancient philosophers and sociological theories through which she processed her own experiences.

Then came the 2008 recession and the budget cuts, which did away with everything from health care to education at WCCW. But that didn’t deter Tate and members of her community. They began to meet and discuss what it would be like “to live in a village where they worked to improve their lives while incarcerated,” according to the group’s webpage. The group eventually organized themselves into what is now called The Women’s Village, which provides services and programs to address education, self-empowerment, life skills, health and wellness, self-care and disease prevention.

Tate, who is now a student at The Evergreen State College, where she majors in Environmental Justice, became the lead on the group’s education subcouncil. She and others began writing to college professors around Puget Sound, such as Tanya Erzen (University of Puget Sound) and Gilda Sheppard (Evergreen), inviting them to talk with their group about how to build a higher education program inside. “In the beginning, I just expected to glean knowledge from experts,” Tate says. “I didn’t expect to start a program.”

But that’s exactly what Tate and her colleagues did. Tate is one of many organizers in the region leading the charge to increase access to higher education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. A few years before the Women’s Village formed, the Black Prisoners Caucus (BPC) at Washington State Reformatory (WSR) established a higher education program that was eventually incorporated as UBB by Carole Estes and Gary Idelburg. The BPC subsequently incorporated their original vision into a liberation education initiative at Clallam Bay Corrections Complex called BPC-TEACH, which centers a peer-education model in order to transform education systems that produce racially disparate outcomes and fuel the education to prison pipeline. 

“It can seem like a lot of acronyms, but each group is important and unique,” Harkins says. “A lot of these programs were founded by currently incarcerated people who worked with volunteers and program sponsors—people who have put so much time and energy and life blood into these programs. What they did was build community, become leaders, and create access to higher ed. It reframed how I saw higher education. I also became really aware that universities, as institutions, could be way more accountable for their role in these systems.”

What Tate has most appreciated about Harkins is that she not only honors these histories, but she also understands that this work must be done collaboratively. “I think that people, especially academics, are often working under this structure where the instructor knows what’s best for the student,” Tate says. “But, for our community, the process has to be more collaborative, especially in terms of building out a program in an effective way.”

Indeed, when asked about the work and teaching she’s done over the past decade, Harkins tends to shift the focus to people like Tate and Oloth Insyxiengmay of BPC-TEACH and UBB. Currently a UW student and a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG), Insyxiengmay’s academic and activist work has focused on building pathways from prison to university campuses. After decades of incarceration, Insyxiengmay was able to transfer credits earned inside and complete his associate degree at Seattle Central College, before transferring to the UW, where he is now a Mary Gates Research Scholar. Across the region’s college prison programs, Harkins says she’s been inspired by how efforts to increase access to education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students had been organized and led by people like Insyxiengmay.

Black Panther Party elder and early member of the Black Prisoners Caucus Mark Cook speaking in Hong Kong

Activist and organizer J.M. Wong also appreciates how Harkins has facilitated collaboration across a diverse array of groups. In 2015, Wong, whose work has largely been in trans-pacific labor organizing, hoped to connect Black Lives Matter activists with the Hong Kong-based organizers of the Umbrella Movement in an effort to strengthen solidarity across black and Asian liberation movements. Wong, who is also part of the Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (FIGHT) family—a community of formerly incarcerated individuals, their loved ones and community—got to know Harkins while raising funds to send Mark Cook, a Black Panthers elder and early member of the Black Prisoners Caucus, to Hong Kong to talk about Ferguson, Black liberation, and the struggle against mass incarceration. Harkins helped connect Wong with the Asian Pacific Islanders Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG), through which Wong became increasingly involved in supporting incarcerated folks who “use culture as a mechanism for their own liberation within the limited confines of prison and as a political vehicle for self-expression and growth and to connect with the community.” “Gillian’s support was really instrumental in my own journey of connecting Black-Asian struggles, labor struggles, and transpacific struggles,” Wong says.

Education Inside and Out

Currently, the 2018-2019 Prison Education Collaboration features a wide range of scholars, college campuses, and prison ed programs who work with Harkins to center race and equity as guiding principles, while considering how UW can best work in partnership with programs like UBB, FEPPS, and BPC-TEACH. UW faculty members include Dan Berger, Megan Francis, Moon-Ho Jung, Carrie Matthews, Chandan Reddy, Ileana Rodriguez-Silva, Stephanie Smallwood, Megan Ybarra, and Lee Ann Wang, and represent departments and disciplines ranging from History, English, Political Science and Geography to Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, Law, Societies, and Justice, and the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Bothell. Many faculty members work as sponsors for groups inside or with community activists. For example, Megan Ybarra (Geography) has worked with partners at Clallam Bay and Nuestro Grupo Cultural to develop courses on topics including pre-Invasion Maya history, El Salvador’s civil war, and immigrant justice in the US legal system.

Another key focus of Harkins’ latest co-created Simpson Center project is that prison education is not simply about importing knowledge into prisons, it’s about getting it out, too. Whether that’s about helping incarcerated scholars share their work at local, national and international conferences or supporting re-entering students seeking to develop an accessible prison to college pathway (while dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline), the Prison Education Collaboration has also addressed educational barriers not only for incarcerated students, but for formerly incarcerated students, as well.

Professor Chris Beasley

While prison higher ed has generally made associates degrees and vocational training more accessible, there are fewer pathways to four-year degrees and graduate education. Harkins points to the work of her collaborator, UW Tacoma Professor Chris Beasley, who runs the Post-Prison Education Research Lab (PERL), which studies the psychological and social influences on transitions from prison to college. Formerly incarcerated himself, Beasley says that when he got out, it was his uncle who talked him into going to college—something he never considered a possibility for himself. At first, he enrolled in a two-year degree program, when he figured: why not go for four? “I just kept going,” he says. “But it took me seven years before I realized that being a professor was even possible for me.”

Beasley, a community psychologist, began to wonder why, exactly, it took him seven years in higher ed to finally realize an academic career was a viable option. That’s when he switched his research focus to post-prison education. He became interested in why formerly incarcerated people were eight times less likely to go to college than the general public and how we might make college more accessible to formerly incarcerated people, of which Beasley estimates there are between 250,000 and 300,000 graduate students nationwide. “One of the greatest challenges is that most formerly incarcerated people don’t have networks of privilege that are developed and maintained through social capital,” he says.

But an even bigger problem, Beasley says, is shame. “When I first started doing this work, one of the hardest things was finding formerly incarcerated people because they were too ashamed. There is so much stigma around being formerly incarcerated. A big part of the work is helping to change the social narrative about incarceration.”

Like Harkins, Beasley’s greatest interest is in facilitating collaboration and coalition-building among Washington state’s diverse range of prison and post-prison education programs, as well as seeing an expansion of degree and credit-granting programs. As of now, UW offers no for-credit courses, grants no degrees, and offers no formal support or transfer programs for formerly incarcerated students through any of the state’s prison education programs. And while UW Tacoma has scholarship funds dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated students like the Joseph Gary Jensen Scholarship Fund, UW Seattle does not.

That work has largely fallen to people like Molly Mitchell, the director of Student Support Programs at Seattle Central College. Three years ago, Mitchell was tasked with building out the school’s Re-Entry Support Program, dedicated to creating “a welcoming, supportive, and respectful learning environment for all currently and formerly incarcerated students,” according to the program’s website. Key to the program’s success is its community of re-entry navigators, formerly incarcerated students that act as peer mentors to those making or planning to make the transition from prison to college. Navigators help formerly incarcerated students enroll in classes, find housing, scholarships and on campus jobs, and provide a network of social and emotional support, while also educating the larger campus on the number of barriers faced by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. They also work in the prisons, helping students prepare to enroll in college and know what to expect when they make the transition.

“You don’t create programs without including the people who are impacted,” Mitchell says of the navigators. “When you do this work, you need to do it in collaboration with those impacted. Then, you have a better sense of what to advocate for on the outside, while creating trust and community. You can’t do it any other way.”

Despite all the immense coalitional work being done, Mitchell says there’s still much to do. “One of the things we’re looking into is our relationship with the UW,” Mitchell says. “Now that the UW is modeling what we’re doing here at Seattle Central for re-entry work, we are trying to create a direct pathway from Seattle Central to UW so that those who were incarcerated are able to do a streamlined transfer to the UW. We also want to see a dedicated UW scholarship. Seattle Central has one for formerly incarcerated students who leave Seattle Central and go to the UW, but we would love to see UW create a re-entry scholarship of its own.”

Harkins continues to challenge herself and other members of UW’s community to think about how they can best support the work of groups such as BPC, APICAG, FIGHT, Nuestro Grupo Cultural, and others. “One of the real questions for us is: why would these groups want to partner with UW-based people? We don’t offer credit, we don’t pay volunteers to teach.  I think those of us at the UW do have a lot to offer, but only if we find ways to do this work collaboratively. It’s not an intrinsic good to have resources and bring them somewhere. You have to think of and center the goals of the community you are partnering with and ask: who is benefiting?”


Denise Grollmus (she/ella)

Denise Grollmus is a writer, scholar, teacher, web designer, and translator who was the Simpson Center's Communications Manager from 2018-2020.