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Transformative Education Behind Bars

Year of Funding: 

The purpose of Transformative Education Behind Bars (TEBB) has been to partner nonprofit and university educators to create an agenda in which transformative education behind bars is possible. Over the course of the past two years, we’ve gathered educators across University of Washington departments and schools, regional institutions of higher education (community colleges, state colleges, and private colleges), and local non‐profits to research and assess current prison‐based education efforts and develop a relevant and flexible curriculum to be delivered to populations behind bars in Washington State.

Year Three focuses on creating sustainable seed projects that can foster ongoing higher education collaboration within and beyond the University of Washington campus. These emerging projects respond to the goals outlined in the first two years of TEBB grant activity and specific issues of curriculum development and relationship building raised in the November 2012 regional meeting.



 To create and sustain relationships among higher education programs working with incarcerated adults and juveniles in the Pacific Northwest

To create and sustain relationships with programs working to improve access to higher education for people at risk of entering regional carceral facilities

 To share strategies for expanding and sustaining access to higher education, including access to effective GED, college preparatory, Associate’s, and Bachelor’s curricula

Key Partners, Year 3:

University Beyond Bars, non-profit organization providing college education to prisoners in the Washington State Reformatory and educating the general public about the need to transform current practices of mass imprisonment: program leaders and teachers;

Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, non-profit organization providing college education to prisoners in the Washington Correctional Complex for Women: program leaders and teachers;

Advisory Boards inside prison at the Washington State Reformatory and the Washington Correctional Complex for Women;


Pedagogy and curriculum development: Anne Dwyer (English); Carrie Matthews (English); Tanya Erzen (Ohio State University)

The agenda for transformative higher education in prisons is often compromised by overdetermining factors. The exponentially amplified power differentials between instructors and students, the unfamiliar codes and conventions of prison culture, and the distinctive constraints and pressures of teaching within a structurally violent and inequitable space heighten ethical issues and practical problems. This research thread aims to investigate this problematic while developing an in-depth pedagogical training workshop that would build educators’ capacities to minimize potentially deleterious impacts, effectively adapt pedagogical praxes to the context of the prison, and ultimately enable the high caliber post-secondary education offered on many traditional campuses.

The teacher training workshop will:

1) familiarize instructors with the often competing goals of higher education in prisons as well as the various problematics raised by higher education in prisons;

2) cultivate concrete, flexible pedagogical practices and ethical interpersonal and institutional relationships to better achieve these goals and address these problematics;

3) develop reflective and responsive capacities of instructors to continually evaluate and adapt their pedagogical practices and relationships, particularly through conversation with other instructors, students, and DOC staff;

4) build a pool of sustainable and renewable resources and a community of ongoing support and accountability for instructors. This would include electronically archiving and disseminating course materials for instructor reference as well as establishing protocols for regular instructor meetings to share concerns, strategies, and course materials.

Curriculum/Program Assessment: Sasha Lotas (Education)

The Curriculum/Program Assessment research thread seeks to build on UBB’s initial assessment work by 1) developing and implementing effective assessment tools and 2) analyzing the data collected with these tools, providing TEBB’s regional and national network with both formative and summative evaluations to help with ongoing curriculum/program development. During TEBB’s third year, this thread will conduct specific research to better understand the connection between secondary-school prison programs, such as ABE and GED classes, and post-secondary courses leading to AA or BA degrees.

The ultimate aims of this research are to:

1) allow TEBB to effectively reach more students;

2) create partnerships with other prison education programs, helping to streamline prisoners’ academic paths;

3) provide opportunities for TEBB to engage with a wider network of educators and researchers invested in college education behind bars and educational access in Washington State.

According to the US Department’s 2003 report “Literacy Behind Bars”, 37% of inmates do not have a high school diploma or GED, and 28% have just a GED. In order for TEBB to best serve these students as they transition from adult literacy programs to college-level programs, it is important to understand the present alignment between prison-GED programs and college-level courses and to develop strategies for better alignment going forward.

Digital Integration: Lassana Magassa (Information School)

This research thread addresses how the digital divide is exacerbated by the prison context, where technology access is highly restricted and uneven, and seeks to advance digital literacy education within prisons. It proceeds from the recognition that outside the prison digital literacy skills—the awareness of, knowledge about and ability to select and use digital tools to locate, organize, evaluate, analyze, create and communicate information—are imperative to navigating all aspects of everyday life. Elsewhere, education is moving online at an increasingly fast pace.

The Digital Integration research thread aims to:

(1) assess digital literacy needs within local prison education programs;

(2) introduce digital literacy standards into the existing curriculum;

(3) partner with current teachers and scholars to design and incorporate assignments and exercises that can develop digital competencies.


Gillian Harkins is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs, in the UW Department of English; English Instructor and Chair of the Education Advisory Board at the non-profit, University Beyond Bars (UBB); English Instructor, Freedom Education Project Puget Sound; and the 2012 recipient of the Sterling Munro Award for Public Service Teaching.

Anne Dwyer is a Ph.D. Candidate in the UW Department of English, a Certificate in Public Scholarship Fellow, and an English instructor and member of the Education Advisory Board at the non-profit, University Beyond Bars.

Tanya Erzen, currently a visiting scholar in the UW Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, is Associate Professor of Religion and Comparative Studies and affiliate faculty of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. She is an instructor and organizer for Freedom Education Project Puget Sound.

Sasha Lotas is a fourth-year doctoral student at UW's College of Education, focused on adult literacy and academic writing development; a Certificate in Public Scholarship Fellow; a co-developer and instructor of University Beyond Bars' College Prep Writing course; and a member of UBB’s Educational Advisory Board.

Lassana Magassa is a doctoral student in UW’s Information School, who studies how social control policies affect the digital divide, specifically its impact on people’s ability to gain digital literacy skills. The space in which he is examining this is US prisons. He has previous experience as a web developer, a systems librarian, and a conflict resolution consultant. He is a member of University Beyond Bars’ Educational Advisory Board.

Carrie Matthews is Lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Writing Program in the UW Department of English; co-curriculum developer and co-instructor of the University Beyond Bars College Prep Writing Course; and a member of University Beyond Bars’ Educational Advisory Board.



Primary Contact

Gillian Harkins (English)

Anne Dwyer (English)

Sasha Lotas (Education

Carrie Matthews (English)

Lassana Magassa (Information Science)