LSJ Alumna Crystal Song Works to Promote Prison-Based Education

Submitted by Lindsay Cael on

By Hunter Kulik

Recent University of Washington graduate (2019) and LSJ alum Crystal Song began her journey with University Beyond Bars (UBB) when she participated in the LSJ Mixed Enrollment course in Winter 2019. As Crystal’s first experience in an incarcerated setting, she found herself moved and enlightened as the course progressed. “What set the course apart was being in that environment and talking about criminal legal reform with folks who are impacted by the system every day,” Crystal says. “It was an unparalleled experience.”

During the Mixed Enrollment course, Crystal observed the intersections between law, education, and punishment that LSJ coursework analyzes. She grew intrigued by the barriers that prevent access to education in the prison system. “Many don’t know that receiving education in prison has been proven to drastically reduce recidivism rates and dramatically increase employability,” Crystal points out. At the end of the quarter, she decided to proceed as a volunteer for UBB and pursue her interest in understanding the role education can play in the prison system.

Upon graduation, Crystal took a position as Operations, Development, and Fundraising Manager with UBB. The nonprofit provides programs that allow incarcerated individuals to participate in a learning environment and pursue an Associates or Bachelor’s degree. They offer a diverse array of experiences and spaces for people to connect with learning, especially for those who may have had a negative experiences in the education system in the past. Beyond degree-related coursework, UBB features bi-monthly arts and lecture presentations. Additionally, UBB offers a cultural series which allows individuals to develop a sense of cultural or racial identity and build community within the prison.

Crystal is one of only four staff members at UBB. However, she claims it is the strong volunteer base and leadership teams within the prison that allow UBB to carry out their mission to the extent that they do. “Our team is small but mighty,” Crystal shares.

Crystal works to navigate everyday obstacles that arise from preparing incarcerated folk for the classroom. “Because our students do not have access to the internet, they have to do everything, from FAFSA to requesting transcripts, on paper,” Crystal explains. Finding and processing critical materials for aspiring students is just one of the many components of the Operations, Development, and Fundraising role.

One of the most rewarding elements of Crystal’s role is facilitating fundraising efforts for the organization and building meaningful relationships with donors. “I love connecting with people and connecting them to the mission of University Beyond Bars. Being able to do that and being able to shed light on the efficacy of providing education in prison is incredibly rewarding.”

While the work is rewarding, some of barriers associated with promoting education in a carceral setting are quite challenging. Crystal explains that UBB fosters some of the most brilliant authors, yet they are unable to disseminate or publish their work. “It is really difficult to witness how their freedom of speech and their freedom of expression is restricted because they are serving their sentence and are in this environment.”

Despite this fact, UBB students are eager to get in the classroom and pursue their degrees. A developing challenge in Crystal’s life is figuring out how to meet the demands of the number of incarcerated individuals looking to further their education. “In an ideal world with unlimited resources and unlimited space everyone would be able to pursue their degrees to the extent that they want,” Crystal says. The limited resources and capacity of the organization pose challenges as the waitlist lengthens. “We are working to anticipate the growth, get ahead of the curve, and figure out how we are going to determine who gets to be in the classroom. I think that LSJ has really prepared me to think through those complex dilemmas.”

From the mixed enrollment course to her current role, Crystal has developed a passion for the importance of education in a carceral setting. “At first it didn’t seem directly linked to ending cycles of poverty and incarceration, or oppression under the state, but when I was able to see the work through a broader scope, there is a real connection,” Crystal says. “I think I would want LSJ students to feel less pressure to do the most fulfilling thing because I think at the end of the day, the community that you serve will be extremely impacted by the work you put forward.”