Inside Out: Students break down barriers behind bars

April 24, 2018
Lisa Weighton

When it comes to education, where you learn matters as much as what you learn. And who’s sitting next to you matters even more. That’s just one of the lessons fourth year Bachelor of Arts in Justice Studies students are learning in a pilot program jointly supported by Royal Roads and William Head Institution.

Twenty-six students are taking a course at the minimum security facility as part of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, an educational program that unites university students and offenders in a 13-week course.

Half of the course participants are incarcerated (inside) students and half are non-incarcerated (outside) students.

A change of people, place and perspective

“The reason I came into the justice studies program is that you get people from so many disciplines so you get different perspectives on everything,” says Monica, one of 13 outside students taking the course on global legal traditions. “The Inside Out course was another opportunity for me to look at something from another point of view from someone who is completely different from me.”

Monica says the weekly three-hour course offers the opportunity to learn side-by-side with offenders; something she says is a valuable experience for her career aspirations in law.

“I came in expecting to change my point of view and that has been happening progressively,” she says.

The Inside Out program came out of Philadelphia’s Temple University 20 years ago. Unlike other courses taught in correctional institutions, Inside Out doesn’t focus on a one-way transfer of skills. Instead, it offers a transformative learning experience across social barriers. Today, more than 100 higher education institutions have sponsored similar courses led by more than 800 instructors in 10 countries. Michael Young

Prof. Michael Young, director of the School of Humanitarian Studies and certified Inside Out course facilitator, completed the 60-hour intensive training program last year. 

The varied life experiences students bring to class creates an intimate and intense learning environment beneficial for inside and outside students alike, Young says.

“I’m looking for people to be honest, open, engaged and willing to do the work, and that’s exactly what they’ve done,” he says. “The discussions are very rich.”

Flip the classroom model

Given students’ various levels of formal education, Young uses a “flip the classroom” model to allow students to drive their own learning experience.

Students sit in a circle. There are no desks, no computers and no cell phones.

“We never use a typical lecture format,” Young says. “You won’t see me behind a lectern.”

Young uses provocative ideas to spark discussion, asking questions like, “Do we really need laws?”

“It puts the onus on them to become more fully engaged in the content,” he says.

Monica says she was surprised by some of the responses.

“Some of the inside students said, ‘We need laws. People need to be held accountable,” she says.

“You think they might say one thing based on all your biases but they don’t and it’s a major reality check.”

Growth through shared learning

Like Monica, Collin registered for the course to broaden his perspective about the criminal justice system and those who move through it. He says his preconceptions about offenders stem from his experience working as a security guard in a psychiatric centre that conducted court ordered assessments for the justice system.

“It’s a change for me because when I was in prisons before there was that power differential where I was a guard and they were the inmates and here we’re coming in on equal terms.”

He says his experience in the course has challenged his preconceptions.

“There’s no gap of intellect. We all have our own unique opinions and we’re able to back them up.”

That level of engagement has been invaluable to her learning says Brie, an outside student who wants to work in parole.

“I’ve learned I don’t know everything. This experience has really helped me grow.”

Brie says she was surprised at the depth of understanding the inside students brought to class discussions.

Young says the energy and motivation the inside students bring to the class is surprising and inspiring to the outside students.

“They can perform well beyond what we would assume given their official educational attainment,” he says.

Learning breaks down barriers

During class debrief sessions, Young says inside students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the voluntary for-credit course.

Some of them even said they want to ensure the outside students are successful in their course.

“They didn’t think they could connect at the level the university students are at,” Young says. “Now they’re saying, ‘actually we can connect at that level, we can communicate, we can engage in dialogue and it’s thoughtful, it’s respectful and it’s helpful,’” Young says.

In addition to building mutual respect, the model promotes self-reliance and pro-social esteem.

“This is basically a legitimate exercise and if you succeed at a legitimate exercise there’s a better chance that you’ll pursue more,” Young says. “It breaks down that barrier of seclusion and gets people one step closer to civilian life.”

For Collin, the hands-on engaging environment has really buttressed his learning.

“You can read about something in a book as much as you want but until you experience it yourself, you don’t really know it.”