Last semester, 17 Wilfrid Laurier University social work students took part in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program — an innovative experiential learning project allowing university students and incarcerated peoples to take university-level classes together.
Each week the “outside,” or university students, would travel to the Grand Valley Institute for Women, a federal correctional facility located in Kitchener, to complete one of their required courses (Diversity, Marginalization and Oppression) with incarcerated, or “insider” students.
“Almost immediately it would disappear from my mind that we were even in a prison; just in a classroom like anywhere else,” said participant and masters of social work student, Randell Duguid.
“It could have been anywhere. We were just a group of women sitting around and chatting about our lives and chatting about our course.”
Pioneered in the United States, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was brought to Canada by University of Toronto professor Simone Davis.
Laurier social work professor, Shoshana Pollack. an expert in the area of women and imprisonment, was approached by Davis, and was asked to implement the program at Laurier. One of the first institutions to initiate a collaborative project of this kind, Pollack was overwhelmed by the positive response from both the Laurier and Grand Valley Institute administrations.
“One of the important aspects of this program is the tremendous support I have received from Laurier and from Grand Valley Institution in allowing me to develop this. It’s a very unique kind of collaboration,” said Pollack.
For faculty of social work students, Inside-Out proved invaluable as it took them out of the traditional classroom setting and placed them directly into the community.
“It was a really good lesson I suppose in learning to be with instead of work at people …. In that classroom we were all equals, we were all students and we were trying to work through and discuss and analyze issues that applied to all of us and the world in general,” said Duguid.
A mutually beneficial program, Inside-Out not only enhanced the learning experiences of “outside” students, but also gave “inside” students access to a university education— an opportunity rarely available to them.
Touted as “wildly successful,” the Laurier Inside-Out program initiated the creation of the Grand Valley Institute Think-Tank, a joint venture between Pollack and the participating “inside” and “outside” students. The Think-Tank meets twice a month and hopes to both increase the Inside-Out movement in Canada and to shift the ways in which Canadians think about incarcerated peoples and the criminal justice system.
Still in its burgeoning stage in Canada, the program was recently launched at the undergraduate level at Ryerson University. Noticing the potential benefits of the program, Pollack hopes to also expand it at Laurier to include students at the undergraduate level.
“It’s transformative,” she said.
“To go inside a prison and be confronted by all the various stereotypes and misunderstandings that we have from the entertainment business, from TV, from media and to have those stereotypes completely exploded …. They’re not people that you’re helping, they’re not people that you’re studying; they’re simply classmates.”