Larry LaRue

Minus guards, razor wire, program is a lot like college

Nowhere in the women’s prison at Purdy is there a place to forget you’re incarcerated. A classroom comes closest.

That’s almost as important as what’s being taught.

“We give them a sense of ‘this is what college looks like,’” said Tanya Erzen, a University of Puget Sound associate professor of religion. “It’s not just a matter of what they learn in class, it’s the fact that they’re treated like students.”

Two years ago, Erzen and fellow UPS professor Stuart Smithers helped found the nonprofit Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, or FEPPS, to work with prison inmates. They were approached by a women’s group, The Village, from within the fences of the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

“The women involved want to change the culture in prison, set an example for one another and view themselves as students,” Erzen said. “We asked them what classes they wanted, then matched teachers to those courses.

“We’ve taught over 20 courses there since January 2012. We have four or five classes per semester.”

After one class last week, a few students talked about attending school behind bars.

“Classes make such a difference. They let you focus on something positive,” inmate Florena Romero said. “You’re not just stuck in a cell or caught up in the daily drama here.”

Tonya Wilson, 38, has taken courses in psychology, philosophy, general religion, race and politics, reading, writing and critical thinking.

“Education is a way to change. It helps you care about something bigger than yourself, because you learn about something greater than yourself,” she said.

There’s also the issue of pride.

“I got a certificate for finishing my first class, and my family showed it to everyone. They bragged about me,” Romero said.

The courses are taught by volunteer instructors from UPS, Pacific Lutheran University, the University of Washington Tacoma, The Evergreen State College and Tacoma Community College.

“We have a deep pool of teachers willing to do this,” Smithers said. “Risk isn’t an issue, never has been. There’s a guard outside, but not one in the classroom.”

Many classes are college level; others are college prep courses.

“Students who haven’t been beyond high school — and may not have been in school for many years — had trouble jumping to college-level courses,” Erzen said. “We didn’t dumb down the teaching. The women didn’t want us to.”

One of the volunteer instructors is adjunct professor Laurel Rayburn, who teaches two online classes for Harvard while she looks for work in the Northwest.

“I’ve been uncomfortable at times, but if you invite interesting discussions, you’re going to feel a little uncomfortable in any classroom — that’s part of the point,” Rayburn said. “I’ve never felt unsafe.”

The inmates now have college-level classes available, teachers willing to do the work gratis and a prison making classroom space available. The one hurdle remaining for the program: getting actual college credits for classes taken.

“The women want the credits, want to work toward degrees,” Smithers said.

Romero, 28, said the potential to earn a degree excites her and other inmates.

“You take courses, and by the time you get out, maybe you continue your education because you know ‘I just have this much left,’” she said. “You’re not starting from nowhere.”

The barrier to getting college credits inside the Purdy prison is finding a college partner to grant them — and negotiate an affordable price. Some schools have suggested a fee of $200 per student, per class.

That, said FEPPS spokeswoman Mary Weir, would be a major drain on a nonprofit.

“We continue to teach the courses and look for a university to partner with,” Weir said.

Kisha Fisher, 39, is taking two classes this semester.

“I have a daughter in college in California. She takes a lot of classes, I take two — I don’t know how she does it,” Fisher said. “She’s proud of me. She knows I’m trying to change. That’s meaningful.”


Go to the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound website at

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638