Posted May 12, 2014 by Cooper Point Journal in Features

Beyond the Barbed Wire



Green Hill students participate in a Gateways workshop.  Photo courtesy of Shauna Bittle.

Green Hill students participate in a Gateways workshop. Photo courtesy of Shauna Bittle.

When I first heard about Gateways for Incarcerated Youth three years ago, my first thought was: I have nothing to offer these kids. The first time I drove down to Green Hill, the all-male maximum security youth prison, I saw the barbed wire fences, walked through the metal doors, and told myself that this middle class white male, the epitome of privilege in U.S. society, was making a mistake.
As the youth walked across the campus, dressed in the mandatory navy blue pants and dark green tops, the thought ran through my mind that I can’t teach a juvenile offender anything he had any interest in.
Now, in the midst of my fifth quarter with the program, I’ve come to realize that beyond a doubt, those young men are the ones teaching me.
Founded in 1996 by former Evergreen professor Carol Minugh, the Gateways for Incarcerated Youth program is divided into two parts: the Gateways 16-credit program, where Evergreen and Green Hill students develop workshops on critical issues and discuss them in group settings, and the Academic Mentoring Program (AMP), where Evergreen and Green Hill students engage in one-on-one, largely unregulated mentoring time.
Gateways is one of the only organizations in the country that allows students and juvenile offenders to work together under common goals of pursuing education, while at the same time reducing recidivism, which means returning to prison for committing a similar crime.
Although these goals are noble, they are often easier said than done. “Programmatically, the biggest impact that would allow the reduction of recidivism to occur is the development of self-confidence,” said Naomi Tajchman-Kaplan, the coordinator for AMP. “We cannot takes steps towards reaching our goals and achieving success unless we inherently believe that we are worthy of the pursuit of those goals, and that we deserve to be able put in the work. We support youth in the quest to develop self-esteem and self-determination to allow them to take advantage of pathways and opportunities.”
Many of the Green Hill students that enter Gateways have received little educational support in the past; yet they probably know better than I do, from having their basic rights stripped from them, that the desire to learn is something that can never be taken away.
One of the first lessons I learned at Gateways is that lecturing the youth on the “error of their ways” is a bridge to nowhere. Gateways isn’t about digging up past mistakes, it’s about shining light on the future. It’s different people, sometimes coming from extraordinarily different backgrounds, bringing their individual perspectives to the table; and the benefits from these discussions are also by no means limited to the Green Hill students.
Miguel Rodriguez, the transition coordinator for AMP and long-time participant in Gateways said, “I feel like I have gained a lot more than I have contributed over the years. Not to say that I didn’t think [the youth] were going to be able to contribute, but I just didn’t realize how much more I was going to gain over the process.”
In addition to promoting personal growth, Gateways and the students at Green Hill bring another dimension to higher education. “A thing that lacks in academia is experience in a lot of things,” said Evergreen student Max Goldsmith, who has taken the Gateways program since fall quarter. “The reason I took this class was because of this idea of praxis, which is the combination of theory and practice. That’s really what takes place in [Gateways] seminar. Because of unfortunate reasons, a lot of the guys with similar experiences [to Green Hill Students], you’re not going to find in a current college class situation.”
Evergreen is an institution that is known for its commitment to social justice, respect, and solidarity. How are values maintained or abandoned when Evergreen students are integrated into a learning environment with some of the most “dangerous” juvenile offenders as classified by the state of Washington? “Some basic ideas that Evergreen students held were dismantled by this program, specifically around the lines of race and class. I think a good 80 percent of them would say that this program changed their life,” said Goldsmith. “I’ve seen everything from little light bulbs going off in Evergreen students’ heads to being shaken by this program.”
One student involved in Gateways wrote “Working at Gateways has humanized this system, and put theory into reality.” Another said, “Gateways has made me way more aware of my own privilege in such a personal way. I care about our peers, and hearing about their plight has made me ever so committed to speak out about this so called ‘justice.’”
Some of the youth are, at first, reluctant to open up, but some of them do so right away. The more I talk with them, the more I realize how fragile the line is between freedom and incarceration. Even after they get released, supposedly “cured” of their illicit tendencies, their previous lives are always calling them back. Gateways strives to help the youth understand that just like past mistakes can be left behind, so can those metal doors that have kept them in the dark for so long.
Although centered around education, Gateways has never strictly been an academic program. It’s about forming mutually beneficial relationships with young men who are trying to make a change in their life. Gateways provides something that is rarely allowed to incarcerated individuals: the opportunity to pursue an interest in a constructive and meaningful way, thus, challenging the youth to step out of the hyper-masculine prison environment and really open up in a supportive setting.
Students do not come to Gateways to fool around and escape the housing units; they are equipped with genuine desires to broaden their education and gain new perspectives in life. One Green Hill student told me, “Because of Gateways, I can make something out of my life. I can be something more than just a prisoner.”
The hardest part of the program is the end. Although equals in the classroom, the Evergreen students depart back to Olympia, and the Green Hill students stay behind, sometimes for decades, as restitution for crimes committed way before the brain has had time to develop.
Goldsmith recalls: “If anything, it kind of breaks my heart.”