Women see the other side
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Tue Dec 27 2011.
Once a week women from Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University go to prison. They pass through a razor-wired fence twice their height and enter an austere brick building, a federal prison for women in Kitchener called the Grand Valley Institution.
These are no Florence Nightingale-minded do-gooders. These women are locked up to learn. They are among the first in Canada to participate in a remarkable program that brings university students and prison inmates together to study in a post-secondary class.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program allows those in prison who never dreamed of going beyond high school to achieve that seeming impossibility. It is rehabilitative, character-changing and confidence-building. It has been shown to reduce crime and violence.
It also engages regular college students in a world they may only have encountered through TV or film and deepens their understanding of social problems. It pushes them to work for changes in their communities to reduce crime and recidivism. Inside-Out is a program that should be emulated in prisons across the country.
When the students arrive at Grand Valley, a prison housing 189 women, they lock up their valuables. Books and papers are placed on an x-ray conveyor belt. Identity cards are shown and they make their way to what looks like an ordinary school room to meet their classmates, women imprisoned for theft, fraud or drug offences.
It is a novel idea, mixing students from essentially middle-class backgrounds with those behind bars. It was introduced to Canada by Simone Davis, an English professor who taught at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and is now at the University of Toronto.
Davis taught Inside-Out classes in the U.S. and found it deeply gratifying. Prisoners begin to have hope; they see the opportunities for a new life after they are freed. “The students from the outside who might have thought every inmate is a thug are also transformed,” Davis says. Stereotypes are busted.
The program was founded in 1997 by Lori Pompa of Temple University in Philadelphia. She was inspired by an idea from Paul Perry, a man serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania state prison. Inside-Out, headquartered at Temple, is now offered by universities and colleges in 35 states with about 10,000 students participating in classes ranging from anthropology to English literature. It is being emulated around the world.
Many argue that prisoners are behind bars for good reason and should pay for their misdeeds. Why allow them the privilege of a university education? The benefits, though, can be enormous. Studies conclude that inmates who receive education are less likely to return to prison. “School failure in childhood and adolescence is widely accepted by researchers as one of the most persistent precursors of later adult criminality,” says a report by Correctional Service Canada.
One U.S. study found that completing post-secondary education could reduce the likelihood of reincarceration by 62 per cent. Davis argues it has a ripple effect. Prisoners who are educated become leaders inside and help mitigate violence and conflict within the institution, and re-enter the community with greater ease.
At the same time, students who visit prisons for shared classes are enriched by mixing with those who have grown up poor and fallen into criminal activity. “I’ve learned so much about women in prison and the issues they face,” says Kim, an “outside” student starting a master’s degree in social work at Wilfrid Laurier.
Students use only first names and do not share backgrounds or histories unless they choose to. “Outside” students are not allowed to ask “inside” students why they are behind bars.
The first session is often difficult. “I was afraid of being judged,” allows Nyki, a woman from inside. “But with every subsequent class I started feeling better.” Students all worry about being judged, whether they are from inside or out, says Wilfrid Laurier social work professor Shoshana Pollack, who led the first class at Grand Valley.
“The ability to share voices, being on equal ground, building trust and listening to each other is important,” says Victoria, a student who returned to university after being away for a few years.
Lorraine, an inmate, evolved from feeling shy to being unafraid to speak her mind. “This course has been a journey rich in laughter and tears, heart-stopping leaps of faith,” she said. “In a short period of time we got over assumptions we had about one another and we got on to learning.”
Together the students struggled with texts, including the poetry of Maya Angelou; they wrote essays and are creating the first women’s think-tank within the Inside-Out program. In the U.S., think-tanks are made up of prisoners and teachers and are responsible for training Inside-Out teachers.
The program is slowly taking root in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C. launched it this year. A Ryerson University philosophy professor will teach at the Toronto East Detention Centre next year and instructors at U of T, York, the University of Ottawa and others have expressed interest.
The Harper government’s omnibus crime bill is set to swell the prison population. That’s following a flawed U.S. model, which scholar Ernest Drucker has labelled a “plague of prisons.” In order to stop that plague, rehabilitation must be taken seriously. The Inside-Out program is a commendable solution, helping to push aside the bars of social inequity that lead so many to prison in the first place.
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