Friday Apr 18, 2014
At first, they all sat together in their separate groups.
The eight women, who are either currently in work release or on house arrest for felony convictions, clustered together in the basement classroom at Lake County Community Corrections in Crown Point, Ind. A few of them had their arms tightly crossed and they slouched in their chairs, their eyes suspiciously darting around the room as they surveyed their 16 classmates from Indiana University Northwest.
As the course progressed, the groups dispersed, body language relaxed, and those who had previously been tight-lipped observers became active in the discussions, which focus primarily on issues related to offender re-entry.
Welcome to the first two weeks of class led by Assistant Professor Monica Solinas-Saunders, Ph.D.
Solinas-Saunders’ course, titled “Service-Learning: Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program on Offender Reentry,” is conducted in a unique format, in which university students (outside students) and those from a correctional facility (inside students) come together to learn. Just as Solinas-Saunders had hoped in this somewhat experimental pedagogy, the barriers between the two groups began to ease with each class discussion as the students shared their personal stories, exchanged viewpoints, and ultimately began to realize they aren’t all that different from one another.
It’s the first course of its kind at IU Northwest, and among only a few such courses in Northwest Indiana. In fact, there are only 300 such courses in the entire U.S., Canada and a handful of other countries. First introduced by Lori Pompa of Temple University in 1997, the “Inside-Out” concept came about initially as a means to enhance learning for college students while at the same time giving imprisoned individuals a means of moving their minds forward.
While Solinas-Saunders is using the format for a criminal justice topic, it can be used for any subject matter. Inmates across the country have participated inside-out courses in English literature, math, sociology, psychology and more.
Solinas-Saunders and her students are finding, with each interaction, that the experience is truly transformative for all. They have observed in recent weeks, for instance, that eliminating prejudice, fostering tolerance, and inspiring hope and change are natural by-products of bringing the groups together.
Ebony Hicks, a senior majoring in criminal justice, believes that in many cases, offenders are good people who have made poor decisions. She wants to be part of the process of justly easing ex-offenders back into the community when they are ready. The 35-year-old former casino manager is pursuing a new career as a federal parole officer.
Hicks is an active contributor to the class discussions and has done her best to help break down the “us and them” mentality that she initially observed.
“My first day, I sat next to one of the ladies. I didn’t want them to feel like they were so different,” Hicks said. “When they see that we have positive things to say and we don’t judge them, it gives them hope.”
In the beginning, she admits things were a little tense. Hicks recalled an icebreaker exercise during the first week in which one of the “inside” girls said she could easily “black someone’s eye.”
Taken aback by the intimidating remark, and curious about why she’d say it, Hicks boldly reminded the young girl that “it isn’t over yet,” implying that just because she got in trouble, doesn’t mean that she can’t have a bright future.
The girl approached Hicks later and told her, “Thank you for your kind words. I really needed to hear that. No one tells me I can do it.”
This is just one of the enlightening exchanges that take place in this classroom each week.
Shannon Hunsicker is a single mother currently on house arrest. She was sentenced to four years for a drug offense. Her troubled past includes abuse, abandonment, illness and addiction. She is a registered nurse who lost her license, and her children, temporarily, because of her addiction.
Hunsicker appreciates what Solinas-Saunders is trying to do by bringing together these two groups. She is glad to participate in fostering understanding and dispelling the notion that all criminals are bad people.
Despite her trouble, and her sentence that won’t end until June 2015, Hunsicker remains positive about her future. She is busy working as a motel housekeeper, raising her two children, attending meetings and therapy, and volunteering as a mentor for other addicted mothers who have lost custody of their children. She wants to pursue a career in addiction counseling, an area she says could use more resources to help offenders get more intensive help.
“I wear what I’ve done like a badge,” she explained. “Not a badge of honor, but a badge of, ‘really bad things happen.’ You make really bad choices, but you’ve got to own it. If you don’t own it, it’s always going to weigh you down and you will never break free from it because you are always going to feel like you’re a bad person.”
Alternative perspectives offer much depth to learning
Tammy Moore is another inside student who was skeptical about the course at first, but warmed up with each class discussion. At times, her views captivated her classmates and got them thinking about things in a way they perhaps hadn’t before.
During a discussion about the memoir, “Orange is the New Black,” by Piper Kerman, which chronicles the story of Kerman’s drug conviction, Moore scoffed at the mainstream notion that the offender/author was a victim of circumstance.
Telling the story of her own “drug dealer boyfriend,” who kept her in a lavish lifestyle and helped support two children and a baby brother while she pursued her ambitions of working in law enforcement, all while turning the other cheek to his criminal activities, Moore’s story eerily paralleled that of the author’s.
This offered a perspective that most had not considered before and the class fell silent while they listened to an “insider” viewpoint from a woman currently serving the last months of her sentence.
It was exactly the kind of discussion that Solinas-Saunders wants to cultivate in the class.
“It opens your mind and allows you to learn there are many different perspectives in life,” Solinas-Saunders said.
Solinas-Saunders herself experienced this first-hand during her certification to become an Inside-Out instructor. Her training included a full immersion with a group of “lifers” inside Graterford Maximum Security Prison in 2011.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she explained. “It was absolutely amazing to see the level of intellectuality that had developed within the prison through the classes. These people were incredible. The level of energy and exchange during the classes were unbelievable.”
While teaching this course at the Lake County Community Corrections over the past few months, Solinas-Saunders has made similar observations. As for the IU Northwest students, she has high expectations for them as well.
“These are students who have great potential to become leaders in community organizations and partner agencies,” Solinas-Saunders said. “They are going to become leaders in these agencies and after this class, they will have an understanding about what it means to end up incarcerated, what it means to be a mother and be incarcerated, what it means to have dreams that are not different than those of any other student.”
A pipeline to college?
It’s clear that many of the “inside” students do not yet have a clear goal in mind and are clearly apprehensive about the experience at first. Solinas-Saunders said this attitude is common and expected amongst “insiders” who often aren’t motivated to set goals or see a positive future. Opportunities like this course can help them develop a clearer vision.
A key perk of the course is that it could serve as a potential pipeline to college for the formerly incarcerated. If they choose to enroll at IU Northwest within five years, the “inside” students will be able to receive course credit with a method known as “credit by examination.” This means they can apply for their credits upon matriculation full-time at IU Northwest within five years from completing the Inside-Out course.
The “inside” students do not pay tuition for the course. In 2013, the IU Northwest Office of Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs awarded Solinas-Saunders with a grant to pay for materials for the inside students. In addition, such service-oriented activities are a primary mission of the University and the faculty.
Kellie Bittorf, executive director of Lake County Community Corrections, said she had heard about the Inside-Out Program and was excited that Solinas-Saunders wanted to bring it to the facility.
“I really appreciate the philosophy behind it,” she said. “Monica’s enthusiasm makes me excited. Her approach is going to help the success of the program. It’s a really awesome opportunity for the women. A lot of them don’t have any college experience. I hope this experience will give them the confidence and interest to pursue a college education.”