Students, Inmates Collaborate on Projects
NMU participated in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program for the first time. The international effort provides opportunities for students in and out of prison to have “transformative learning experiences” that emphasize collaboration and dialogue as they address crime, justice and other social issues. Marquette Branch Prison approached NMU’s criminal justice department about implementing the program locally. NMU students met weekly with inmates at the prison and worked on proposed projects they displayed at last week’s closing ceremony (pictured).
The projects included mailed DVD messages for family members, backpacks/school supplies for inmates’ children, post-incarceration employment, shelter dog training/adoption and employment training and transition.
“Students got so much out of that unique environment,” said Michael Harrington (Criminal Justice). “They talked about criminal justice issues with a population not normally in their classes at NMU; a population some of these students may work with after they graduate.”
Gabrielle Loew is a senior from Hastings, Mich. Her small group came up with the idea for Mail-a-Message.
“One of the inmates had a daughter who was only 2 years old when he went to prison and will be 9 at the youngest when he gets out,” Loew added. “She only knows his voice and he wanted to read her books on video so she gets used to his face and can replay him reading that book anytime she wants. Hearing their perspective changed mine in terms of what their families are going through. It was a completely new learning experience. I had never met a felon before, but after a while, they were just like other students, except we had to pass through security to meet with them. I learned not only about the criminal justice system and prison, but a lot about humanity.”
Harrington said both groups were apprehensive in dealing with each other at first. For NMU students, safety was an initial concern. He said the inside students expected to be intimidated academically or made to feel like a research subject. Within a couple of sessions, it was hard to differentiate between the groups other than by their clothing.
“Everyone was pleased with how it went and would like to see it repeated,” Harrington added. “It involved a rigorous reading schedule and students had to write an eight-page paper every week. Some of the inside students plan to pursue college upon their release. Studies show education is the best rehabilitative tool prison can offer, reducing recidivism by 43 percent. For each dollar spent on education, there is a $4-$5 long-term benefit because those individuals are more likely to find employment.”
Harrington attended a 60-hour training session in Philadelphia. He also visited Macomb Correctional Facility to learn how to implement the model and develop classes. Harrington said other NMU faculty could go through the training and apply the model to topics beyond criminal justice.
Both the inside and outside groups were screened through an application process. The inside students had to test at an appropriate reading level and could not have a sex offender history. The NMU students had to agree not to contact the inmates after the program or search for them on social media or the Department of Corrections website.