Inside-Out program brings inmates, students together to learn

Garrett Pelican

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Fifteen students retrieve their driver’s licenses, hold their hands out to be stamped with special ink and submit their notebooks and folders to a thorough search. The students remove their shoes and socks, empty their pockets and open their mouths. After passing through metal detectors, they endure a meticulous pat-down before receiving their personal protection devices.

The process might last 20 minutes, but when it is complete the students are free to join the rest of their classmates – 15 other students waiting inside the classroom, clad in blue and orange jumpsuits.

These security measures are standard procedure every Tuesday evening for the students as they file into a room inside Michigan Reformatory, a multi-level correctional facility in Ionia, Mich.

Once everyone is inside, Carly Hilinski, an assistant criminal justice professor at Grand Valley State University, said she runs the class similar to any other.

“I hand back papers, go over miscellaneous reminders and things like that,” she said. “We get into small groups pretty often and then come back to the larger group.”

Hilinski runs the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, the first of its kind at GVSU, the third of its kind in Michigan and one of more than 200 active of its kind in 40 states.

The program, which is offered as a three-credit elective through CJ 380, is a special topics course. Hilinski said students gain a first-hand look at the corrections system with a perspective absent in conventional classroom learning.

“It’s a way for them to put a face to that abstract we talk about all the time in class – criminals, sentencing and punishment,” Hilinski said.

Though the program is designed to dispel physical and social barriers, inmates are referred to as “inside students” while GVSU enrollees are called “outside students.” This distinction has not prevented “outside students” such as senior Elle Gray from embracing the unique learning experience.

“While we do have assigned readings and papers in this class, I feel that the real learning comes from our in-class discussions and interactions with our classmates,” she said. “We learn from each other as well as the instructor, and it’s entirely up to us what we get out of our sessions.”

Watching students break down these barriers, Hilinski said, is the most rewarding aspect of the program.

“They’re just like us, except that they made a choice or they made a mistake and they got caught,” she said. “We would be hard pressed to find somebody that could say they’ve never committed any type of crime whatsoever, so seeing the two groups work together and seeing that barrier between us and them break down is really rewarding.”

Another key distinction between the two sets of students is that “inside students” do not receive college credit for the course, though they do not pay tuition either. Instead, they gain a chance to participate in a constructive educational program.

“They’re getting the opportunity to essentially take a college class from Grand Valley for free,” Hilinski said. “They get the same amount of work, the same amount of reading as the Grand Valley students are doing, so they’re doing the exact same assignments that our students are doing.”

While “inside students” receive certificates after completing the course that they can put in their prison files, Michigan Reformatory Warden Carmen Palmer said they also receive intangible benefits.

“We believe increased educational opportunities improve offender chances of becoming better citizens upon release and contributes to their individual growth while in prison,” she said.

Hilinski’s inspiration to foster the program at GVSU came when she began teaching at the university and found students lacking interest in the corrections process.

“Hearing the students talk about corrections, nobody really liked the class,” she said. “They always talked about it as some required class that they had to take.”

Hilinski completed her instructor training in June 2009, but it was several months before she began to teach the course as she spent six months waiting for approval from prison officials and a few more working out the details.

The classroom, which features windows on three walls, constant surveillance and the presence of a facility official, boasts chairs, a desk, a white board, a chalk board and little else.

“I don’t have any electronic resources, which is fine, but I’ve got the basics for a classroom,” Hilinski said.

Because it is a college-level course, Hilinski said the program’s curriculum is designed to present challenges for both types of students.

“We talk about things like why people commit crimes, theories of crime, myths and realities of prison, victimization, punishment and sentencing,” she added.

Unlike in traditional classes, Hilinski said she has found that both sets of students are enthusiastic participants – while “outside students” are generally more engaged than in her normal classes, she has found that “inside students” assert their own involvement with additional examples from the news or books they have read.

The level of participation from “inside students,” however, has led “outside students” to voice concerns of inadequate preparation in comparison.

“The outside students have expressed some frustration to me that they don’t feel that they are as well-read as the inside students,” Hilinski said. “So they sometimes feel intimidated in classes, which is a really unique dynamic because you’d think the opposite.”

Gray said the “inside student” views have challenged her intellectually.

“Everyone’s perspectives have caused me to re-evaluate my own views and think about why I view things the way I do,” she said. “The inside students are very well-informed and keenly aware of the world around them, both inside and outside of the correctional facility.”

The program presents a host of unique challenges. Because of the nature of the setting, the class can be cancelled with only five minutes notice should anything happen within the prison.

Participants must also adhere to specific rules: “outside students” are not to share too much personal information with “inside students,” the two sets of students are not to correspond outside of the classroom and they are to terminate any contact once the semester ends.

So far, Hilinski said the class has had no issues involving the rules.

“I think we’ve really shown them that we can follow the rules, that this course is a good thing and that we should keep coming back every week and maybe even every semester,” she said.

Palmer said she hopes the program continues successfully so that other prisons might follow suit, but also so that inmates can continue to receive educational opportunities.

“As we know, education is a variable which may lead to reduced criminal activity, which we all are in favor of,” she said.

Owing to its nature, the program places restrictions on the students it accepts. “Outside students” must be GVSU criminal justice majors that have taken CJ 101 – Justice and Society – and 201 – Criminology – and have a requisite 2.8 GPA. Additionally, they must submit references to and meet with Hilinski before admission, along with having a clean background check.

In turn, admission for “inside students” precludes those serving a life sentence and those serving for CSC (criminal sexual conduct). In addition, inmates must be a security level II (minimum security), must have a GED or high school diploma and must be misconduct free for six months.

The program, which was founded by Lori Pompa – a professor at Temple University – aims to “create opportunities for people inside and outside of prison to have transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue and that invite them to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern,” according to the organization’s website.

Hilinski will offer the course in the winter 2011 and fall 2011 semesters.

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