Prison Research Group Brings Awareness

The Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Photos by Faith Bernstein.

Whitman’s Prison Research Group, meeting once a month at lunch in Reid Campus Center, allows students to learn about issues with both Washington State Penitentiary and prison as an institution. This large freeform discussion includes not just members of the Whitman community but many residents of Walla Walla and officials working in the prison.

The motivation for the creation of the group came from both the intellectual possibilities with prison in general and the unique proximity Whitman has to the prison.

“Prisons and criminal justice are interdisciplinary subjects that include psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, economics and others,” said Steve Rubin, a former psychology professor at Whitman, in an email. “We felt that liberal arts students and educated people  in general would be interested.”

The Washington State Penitentiary is located just a couple miles from campus. In efforts to bring greater awareness, Rubin and Peterson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences Keith Farrington began the Prison Research Group in the early 1980s.

Professor Keith Farrington, one of the co-founders of the Prison Research Group.

Other professors have also been heavily involved with the group, including Professor of Economics Pete Parcells and Mitch Clearfield, senior lecturer of philosophy general studies.

“The addition of Professors Parcells and Clearfield really added to our group,” said Rubin. These professors further add to the interdisciplinary nature of the group.

The group provides opportunities to discuss and engage with both the concept of prison and prisons themselves.

“We have some general things we try to accomplish each year,” said Farrington, one of the current leaders of the group. “We try to provide a forum where students, faculty, prison officials, other people that work in the criminal justice system in Walla Walla and occasionally people that have spent time in prison …[are able] to talk about stuff that’s happening.”

Each meeting has a different focus. At the group’s most recent meeting, attendees discussed the effects the recent elections could have on the prison population.

“Every week is different,” said sophomore Gabie Brosas. “There’s always discussion about issues within the prison and prison in general.”

One topic discussed in detail was the issue of marijuana legalization, an especially timely topic given that many inmates have been incarcerated for dealing or using marijuana.

Handouts, including one that described “10 Alternatives to Prison,” were distributed to attendees. The discussion featured many different perspectives because of the diverse group that attended, which included students, faculty and community members interested in the issues.

According to Farrington, the group prides itself on being open to all.

“We are very conscious that it’s an informal, voluntary organization,” said Farrington. “There is no credit provided, and students, faculty and community members come on a voluntary basis to talk and exchange ideas.”

In addition to providing a space for discussion, the group has toured prisons in multiple states and took a trip to Great Britain 10 years ago.

“The group provides opportunities to tour prison facilities in the area. Usually that means the Washington State Penitentiary, but we’ve broadened our perspective quite a bit,” said Farrington. These excursions allow the group to not only talk about issues in the prisons, but experience them firsthand.

In addition to these trips, the group has provided tools for students who have written theses on the Washington State Penitentiary or on other issues with prison in the past. Farrington and Rubin had this in mind when they created the group.

“One thought we had was that it could help psychology and sociology students develop a thesis dealing with the penitentiary,” said Farrington.

Dozens of students over the past few decades have researched the penitentiary for their theses, some of them using the group as a resource. The group has enjoyed great support from the penitentiary itself in researching and touring the facilities.

“We’ve had wonderful support from the [penitentiary],” said Farrington. “I think they really care about educating us and our students about prison-related issues.”

At most meetings there are representatives of the prison, and the group has had good relationships with its officials. A number of Washington prison superintendents and officials, including current superintendent Steve Sinclair, have attended meetings.

Prison-related discussion will leave the confines of the group next semester, as a number of classes will address issues with crime and punishment.

“There will be a lot of prison-related activity next semester,” said Farrington.

Students and faculty acknowledge that this unique forum provides a way to think about local issues outside of campus.

“I think it’s really interesting that we’re so close to the state penitentiary but it isn’t talked about,” said Brosas. “The research group is a great way to get out of the bubble.”




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