Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hardened criminals and college co-eds

No - it's not a porn movie, though you might question the intent after reading this....

It's actually a college-level program designed to bring college students and incarcerated individuals together as equals to discuss various issues. It's called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. According to their website, it:

"...increases opportunities for men and women, inside and outside of prison, to have transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue, inviting participants to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern."

It came to my attention thanks to an article in our local paper (link) about the class being sponsored by The University of Toledo and the Toledo Correctional Institute. The paper said four other colleges in Ohio also offer the program.

From the program website, we learn about the purpose and coursework of the class:

Inside-Out brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study as peers in a seminar behind prison walls. The core of the Inside-Out Program is a semester-long academic course, meeting once a week, through which 15 to 18 “outside” (i.e.: undergraduate) students and the same number of “inside” (i.e.: incarcerated) students attend class together inside prison. All participants read a variety of texts and write several papers; during class sessions, students discuss issues in small and large groups. In the final month of the class, students work together on a class project.

Inside-Out is an opportunity for college students to go behind the walls to reconsider what they have come to know about crime and justice. At the same time, it is also an opportunity for those inside prison to place their life experiences in a larger framework. Inside-Out creates a paradigm shift for participants, encouraging transformation and change agency in individuals and, in so doing, serves as an engine for social change.

Through college classes and community exchanges, individuals on both sides of prison walls are able to engage in a collaborative, dialogic examination of issues of social significance through the particular lens that is the “prism of prison.”

But the newspaper article gives you a different sort of view:

"Inside-Out instructors prefer to be called "facilitators" rather than professors, because they start the class with ice-breaker exercises to spark talking and laughing before student-led discussion begins. Lucas County Assistant Prosecutor Dean Mandros and University of Toledo Interim Dean of Students Michele Martinez were among the civic leaders, university administrators, and prison personnel to participate in the final session Tuesday that started with questions such as, "What is your most embarrassing moment?" and "How would you like to improve yourself?"

After the exercise, participants sat in a circle and were asked how the exercise made them feel. Answers ranged from anxious and overwhelmed to comfortable and enlightened."

How they "feel"??? And here I thought college was all about learning how to think critically.

Having worked with the criminal justice system during my political career (as a clerk of court and as a county commissioner), I'm familiar with many types of rehabilitation programs. As a member of a criminal justice committee for the National Association of Counties, I was particularly interested in re-entry programs, so I'm supportive of the efforts to not only help incarcerated individuals when you have them as a 'captive' audience, but also the need to provide specialized assistance upon their exit from the system to reduce the likelihood that they will re-offend.

So I don't want to criticize a program based upon what I read in our local paper, which doesn't have the most stellar reputation for sharing all the facts. But the majority of Toledoans - and others who may read this - will do just that. And the impression is not good, especially when it includes quotes like this:

Liz, a University of Toledo senior majoring in political science, said she isn't curious about the crimes that resulted in her classmates' imprisonment. The experience left her reconsidering law school, in favor of furthering her education to teach in the prison system.

"All I see are people, and all I see are great people," Liz said. "And I don't want to ask that, I don't want to know. You don't have to know someone's past to know them."

Really? Your past is what forms who you are today. But this student, for some odd reason, professes not even curiosity about what her 'classmates' may have done to get them into TCI.

Interestingly, 949 of TCI's 1165 inmates are classified into level 3 Close Security (1 is minimum and 4 is maximum security). I couldn't find any listing on the Dept. of Corrections website that details what types of crimes get a person placed in Close Security, but considering it's one step down from Maximum, I'm pretty certain it includes crimes of violence.

And while the classroom setting inside the prison may be a relatively 'safe' environment, I would be cautious of someone if I knew that their past crime involved murder, or rape or assault. That would certainly make a difference to me and how I handled myself around the individual.

And it apparently matters to others, as well. From the comments on the article:

"What exactly are they learning? According to this article they discuss polictical and social issues for credit. The ice breaking questions sound like therapy not college class. This is a joke. The inmates are just gathering mental porn for when they go back to their cells and the girls get to brag about how they hang out with criminals to make their parents nervous. What a waste"

"Send your daughter to college...
...so she can meet a convict. I believe in rehabilitation as much as the next guy, but; no thanks."

"Does getting perps and co-eds together to play pictionary serve a clear, distinct purpose in the education of either? Really? The wrap-up was prisoners singing love songs and students reciting anti-prison system poetry and stories about "getting close?" The nice thing about this is that it relieves me of the nagging need to return my alumni appeal gift."

"Forget the fox watching the hen house
Just bring the little chickies to the foxs den!"

And if you're a parent paying for your child's education, is this what you expected from a political science class? Or better yet, how many of the participants got federal grants or loans using taxpayer money? While this isn't the worst of classes I've seen offered, it certainly doesn't inspire confidence, especially when the newspaper highlights this:

Before the conclusion of the course, a prisoner sang and performed a love song on the keyboard, and a college student read a poem about the flaws of the prison system.

Our educational system has serious flaws - and I know our penal system is far from perfect. But I don't believe that this type of program is the way to address either of those issues, especially when the focus is on feelings rather than critical thinking and acceptance rather than discernment.


Mad Jack said...

Now that a few prisoners have gained some new pen pals, a new source of commissary dollars and a bitch wanna-be I'm sure they'll all see the light, turn their lives around and grow up to be social workers, school teachers... okay, there's a background check there, so maybe not school teachers - but other stuff like that. And their parents will be thrilled to death to find out that they're helping to pay for a college education that includes things that they, the parents, never learned in college. Like, for instance:

Don't call him that! He's not a common criminal!

Jamal didn't do anything wrong! He just rode along in the carjacking.

Maurice wants to marry me and have children! He just needs some money right now.

Tell me the Sunday school truth now. After reading my little missive, how many parents are thinking about that pistol you keep next to your bed?

Stephanie Lorée said...

I graduated from UT with a BS in Criminal Justice and currently sit on an advisory board for a correctional institute. At face value, the article seems a little "feel-good," but like you I'd be curious to know the truth. Had this program been offered while I was a student, I would have signed up in a heart beat. For anyone who wants to work in the penal system (like me), this kind of opportunity for firsthand observation would be an incredible learning experience. I do wonder what kind of exposure they're getting, but these are college level adults, not high schoolers. I'd hope they'd be smart enough to make adult decisions.

Maggie said...

Stephanie - with a major in criminal justice, I can see where such types of coursework might be applicable...but the purpose of the program isn't really clear, at least, not in terms of measurable outcomes identified on the program's website.

I would like to know the measurable outcomes and the length of time expected for such outcomes...

skeeter1107 said...

The story did strike me as a little too feel good.

I would like to see these same students also introduced to inmates that are shall we say, "not so repentant" Then the students could get a more complete view.

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