KPU Criminology Students Take Part in Prison Exchange Program

Students visit the Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, a minimum security prison, to attend class with inmates

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was first offered at KPU in 2011. Last spring saw the third iteration of the program. (KPU Flickr)

As part of an experiential, hands-on learning approach to restorative criminal justice, Kwantlen Polytechnic University—in partnership with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program—sent students to the Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village to sit in on the classes that inmates take there.

The program, which offers post-secondary courses and other learning experiences to inmates, was first introduced by an instructor named Lori Pompa at Philadelphia’s Temple University 22 years ago. Former KPU Instructor Jane Miller-Ashton heard about the program and trained in Philadelphia before bringing the model back to KPU.

“I was the chair of the Criminology department at the time and [Miller-Ashton] proposed a course to me,” says KPU Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts Dr. Wade Deisman. “We got the dean to support it and we offered our first course at Matsqui, a medium security institution, in the fall of 2011.”

Unique to the Canadian program, the inmates are actually admitted to KPU and receive university credits for the course in the same way that any student receives credits. The original U.S. model of the course often deals with inmates serving a life sentence, but Canadian inmates can serve their time and return to the community.

“Another thing that was important about the [Kwìkwèxwelhp] iteration of the program was that we formed a partnership with the local Chehalis community, so it was actually a three-way thing with the prison, the University and the local community,” says Deisman.

The healing village, which is just east of Vancouver, is located on Chehalis First Nation land. In addition to the students from the village and external KPU community, two local members of the Chehalis community were brought in to take part in the course.

Together, the village and the community have a close relationship, but the Inside-Out program provides a stronger network for inmates who may choose to settle in that community upon their release.

“Some of the topics were kind of hard to grasp, so the only way that we could really connect with it was to share from our own experiences,” says third year KPU Criminology student, Sujata Bakshi, who took the Inside-Out course. “It was really experiential and lovely.”

The third iteration of the course was held during the spring 2017 semester and focused on trauma and healing. Students were required to have a number of readings completed and be prepared to discuss the readings and themes in groups. The class would then sit in a large circle, alternating between hearing from students living inside and outside of the village. Class time took place once every two weeks, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“I think education is a transformative tool that allows us to gain this critical understanding of the world around us, and that works both ways,” says Bakshi. “When we learn about all these theories, it’s always about why the offender does what he or she does or what some sociological factors behind that are, but I think, in doing that, we simultaneously create an image or preconceived ideas of who these individuals are—and that’s why this program was so great. In the end, you just realize they’re human beings like you and me.”

Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village takes a restorative approach to corrections by incorporating Indigenous cultures and the role of the Elders among Indigenous communities to help facilitate inmate rehabilitation.

“For students here that are wanting to become future criminal justice officials, it really gives them a first hand witness to the kinds of things that need to be changed, that need to be addressed [in the criminal justice system],” says Bakshi.

(KPU Flickr)

As the program’s reach and reputation grows, KPU will continue to search for a more permanent sponsor to help fund it.

“Telus has funded us the last two times,” says Deisman. “They’ve paid all the tuition of the inside students, and in 2013 they gave us their community excellence award for the contribution that we made to the inmates, their families, and the local community.”

From late April to early May this year, KPU provided Inside-Out training for instructors looking to teach the course. Although a few of the training sessions have taken place in Ontario, this was the first to occur in British Columbia. People from all over Canada and washington State came to the Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village to take part.

“What’s really important to know about the training is you do the training inside the prison with the inside prisoners who have taken the course before,” says Deisman. “You can’t possibly imagine a more powerful training experience for people who are thinking about teaching inside a prison than actually being there.”