Breaking Down Barriers

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program walks the space in between the university and the prison, building lines of communication and opening possibilities for social change.

Fifteen minutes. That’s 900 heartbeats and 180 breaths. It’s also the amount of time it takes students to board a bus at Valparaiso University and arrive at the gates of the Westville Correctional Facility for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program. Stepping off the bus to attend class inside prison walls, students prepare themselves for the first Inside-Out Prison Exchange course offered at Valpo.

When Carmyn Hamblen ’15, a criminology and communications double major, entered the prison with fellow Valpo students, she had more on her mind than the course syllabus.

“The initial meeting was nerve racking for everyone,” she says. “I was worried about how the inside students would perceive me, and I was unsure about what to expect.”

A course for junior and senior criminology and sociology students, “Inside-Out Prison Exchange: Rethinking Crime, Justice, and Behavior from the Inside Out” is held in the minimum security section of the prison. Once a week, 15 Valpo students — known as outside students — attend a discussion-based class with 15 incarcerated men — known as inside students — from the minimum security division to learn together and study as peers.

“The premise of the class is to explore a variety of topics within the criminal justice system throughout the semester: what prisons are for, why people commit crimes, what the criminal justice system is trying to accomplish, and what role policing should play in that,” says Professor Amanda Zelechoski, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology. “It’s intended to be a fusion of psychology and sociology as we examine this intense and passionate dialogue together and learn the myths of prisons.”

Professor Dawn Bartusch, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of sociology and criminology, helped launch the program with Professor Zelechoski in spring 2014. She expected the first meeting to be intimidating for everyone.

“Everyone is afraid, and the inside students were in many ways more fearful than the outside students,” says Professor Bartusch. “Outside students have this image of monsters behind those walls, and they go in and find themselves meeting human beings. And the inside students have this image of snobby privileged college students, so our first class includes many ice breakers to help people feel more relaxed around one another and to break down those biases.”

As for Carmyn, who is attending Valpo on a Lilly Scholarship, she found the tension among inside and outside students dissipated quickly.

“Realizing we were all nervous was the first step to understanding we are all more alike than we anticipated,” says Carmyn. “We were all together, and the walls disappeared; we created our own community where we all felt safe to share our experiences.”

Before arriving at the prison, Valpo students met to discuss rules including security, dress code, and the number one question they cannot ask students inside the prison: ‘What did you do to get here?’

“If answered, we might define that person by that one thing, just as society does,” says Professor Bartusch. “I tell our outside students that if they think for one moment about the worst thing they’ve ever done, would they like to be defined by that forever?”

Among the many discussions between inside and outside students, Carmyn recalls the conversation that affirmed her decision to one day become a police officer.

“We were talking about the good and bad sides of law enforcement, and the conversation was primarily focused on the negative aspects,” says Carmyn. “Then one of the inside students pointed out that we are one step closer to solving problems because of those in the class who want to be police officers.”

The inside student continued, saying, “These are exactly the kind of people we need. They are the ones who will make a difference.” It was at that moment that Carmyn realized the sense of respect and humanity she had worked toward and re-discovered her path to law enforcement.

“I am extremely passionate about this course and the effect it has had on my life,” says Carmyn. “This class created a community where we could talk about real change, and I walked away realizing no one is better and no one is worse; we are wonderfully different.”

To make experiences like Carmyn’s possible, Professors Zelechoski and Bartusch received help through several grants, including the Valparaiso University Alumni Association Faculty Development Award, two of The Committee to Enhance Learning and Teaching (CELT) grants, and the Dean’s Fund for the Social Sciences, to cover the required training, travel expenses, and supplies for the course.

“The point is equity across the board. So there are a lot of logistics that go into it; we can’t use Blackboard, electronic sources, and other tools that are unavailable to all students. They only use materials provided in the course,” says Professor Zelechoski.

“We had an outside student who wanted the full experience, so she opted to write her papers by hand, because that’s how inside students completed assignments,” says Professor Zelechoski. “It was very inspiring to see people really immerse themselves in the course.”

The inside students not only contributed to group discussions, they also broke down barriers and created a space where outside students felt welcome.

After noticing a mural of university logos and Valpo’s absence, the inside students surprised the outside students with a large painting of the Valpo logo on the wall. The entire class took a group photo around the image, which Professor Zelechoski pointed to as a sense of comradery between the inside and outside students.

Professor Zelechoski says this is an important aspect of having the class inside the prison.

“There are foundational topics about the criminal justice system that we want students to discuss,” she says, “but at the end of the day we know this experience is meant to take each of them on a very different journey that we hope will have a lasting impact.”