An inside education: Lake Superior College part of Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program
Billy's life in pictures was laid out on the floor between him and a couple of other students: Billy skydiving and blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Pictures of his newborn niece and his family at a Christmas celebration.
"You see me, you prejudge; every person does," said Billy, an inmate at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center in Saginaw. "But you see these pictures. He has a family, he travels. Once you start looking at it from this perspective, you start saying there is a lot more we can do as a society."
Billy is a student in a Lake Superior College sociology class, "Criminal Justice in Society," offered as part of the international Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Per the program's rules, only the first names of students, both incarcerated and not, can be shared. The class takes place at the correctional center in the visitor's room, and is typically half LSC students, called the "outside" students, and half inmates of the center, called the "inside" students. The program was created 20 years ago by Philadelphia's Temple University, and now includes more than 100 correctional facilities and higher education partnerships.
The college began offering the class in 2012, after instructor Theresa Leopold went through Temple's inmate-taught intensive training program to teach it. More than 300 students have taken the course through LSC since then.
The class, with heavy use of group work and discussions, tends to shed preconceived notions, Leopold said.
"Most answers people come up with as to why people break laws are just way too simplistic," she said. "People's stories have depth and complexity. ... This class allows us to engage each other as individuals, and learn the common humanity we have."
Learning from each other
Finding the right students for a class like Leopold's takes some work. Outside students need background checks. NERCC employees vet inside students by their sentence lengths, behavior record and interest-level in the class. Outside students follow the same rules as visitors: modest clothing; phones and keys left outside the room; no food or drink; and no open-toed shoes. A major rule is keeping things on a first-name basis. Last names are forbidden from being exchanged, along with social media accounts and phone numbers.
"If anything would jeopardize the program, it's an inappropriate relationship developing," Leopold said, noting also the program's emphasis on avoiding examination of the inmates' crimes or trying to "get inside these guys' heads."
The corrections center, which operates as a work farm, has minimal security and typically houses more than 100 men sentenced by courts in St. Louis, Carlton, Cook, Koochiching and Lake counties. The longest stay is one year, but six months is a more typical stay.
While the content of the course is valuable to the inmates, the bigger benefit is the interaction with LSC students, said Katy O'Sullivan, senior supervisor of treatment and programming at NERCC.
"The inside students often find it exciting to be challenged intellectually," she said. "Some go on to enroll in college after they leave, partly because of being in that class."
People have "strong opinions" about how those who break laws should be treated, Leopold said, and not everyone thinks such a class is a good idea. But 90 percent of people who go to jail or prison are eventually released, which makes it all the more important to get to know them as individuals, she said.
"A lot of them tell me that for those three hours every week, they feel like they are not locked up anymore," Leopold said. "They are regarded as human, and what they have to say matters."
And for the outside students, it usually ends up being more than a course. Some who have gone through it have changed career paths or re-examined long-held beliefs, Leopold said.
"It's a class for people willing to step outside of their comfort zone," she said.
Several LSC students, many interested in careers in criminal justice, told the News Tribune that the class was eye-opening, and offered the chance to hear people's stories and experiences firsthand. Some said they learned the criminal justice system isn't always fair. One student said the class taught her to be less judgmental.
Billy and others were working on final group projects during one three-hour class mid-November, the orange Crocs worn by the inmates the only definitive way to tell the two student groups apart.
The point of their project — a photographic look at Billy's life — he said, was to show that he is a person, not a statistic.
"The outside students are learning that crime has a name and it has a face," he said, amid his group's discussion that the criminal justice system as a whole isn't doing enough to rehabilitate the incarcerated. A veteran dealing with PTSD, alcoholism and depression, he said he's struggled to get the help he needs at NERCC because of the demand.
(O'Sullivan said there is typically a wait list for the therapist who visits the facility.)
"The underlying factor with a lot of crime," Billy said, "is mental health."
And while one inside student said he sometimes felt "studied," others said the class was meaningful.
The Inside-Out program is the kind of thing that helps create change, said inside student Brice.
"We are definitely learning from each other," he said.