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Prison exchange program breaks down the educational walls

Regular students learn alongside incarcerated students at correctional facilities.

by Mark Cardwell

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It’s a pedagogical approach that works: giving classes inside prison walls to a mix of incarcerated and traditional students. “Most teachers who try it say it is the most rewarding and meaningful experience of their career,” says Simone Davis, an ethics course instructor at the University of Toronto and coordinator of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Wilfrid Laurier University. “It combines intellectual rigour in a real community setting.”

Founded 15 years ago at Philadelphia’s Temple University, the Inside-Out program aims to provide a deeper understanding of notions of crime, punishment and related social issues by bringing together incarcerated “inside” students and regular “outside” students in prison classrooms. Now offered by more than 100 colleges and universities across the U.S., the concept spread to Canada in the fall of 2011 when both WLU and Kwantlen Polytechnic University launched pilot programs.

The rave reviews received by the WLU program – which in the spring brought together 17 graduate students from the school’s faculty of social work and 17 students from inside the federal Grand Valley Institution for Women – helped it to land a $375,000 grant from the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation. The money will be used to support a new course (entitled “Human Rights in a Globalizing World”) being given to the 20 students enrolled in the program this semester, and to help develop the first Inside-Out instructor training program in Canada. The week-long course, which Dr. Davis took at Temple and will likely lead here, is tentatively scheduled for July 2013.

The program is a transformational eye-opener for students on both sides of the prison walls, says Dr. Davis. For outside students, “it helps break down the stereotype that all inmates are thugs,” she says. For incarcerated students, having access to a live classroom where they are considered equals and where their thoughts and ideas are welcomed, is a rehabilitative confidence-builder that helps make them less likely to re-offend in the future – a claim echoed by education counsellors with the Correctional Service of Canada.

Program instructor Shoshana Pollack agrees. An associate professor of social work at WLU, she says inmates in the program are transformed by it. “They are highly committed to this unique learning opportunity,” says Dr. Pollack, who teaches one of the two three-hour courses currently being offered. She also vets applicants, who must notably agree to classroom rules such as the use of first names only and an end to friendships once the 14-week courses end.

For WLU student Kayla Follett, who took one of the courses last year and is now an intern with WLU’s Inside-Out office, the program was both unique and motivating. “It opened my eyes to the fact that inmates may have done bad things but they are not necessarily bad people,” she says. “The experience really changed my life.”

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