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Center offers course at correctional facility

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Edward Kelly, a professor in the University Writing Program, said prison is the best place to start conversations about social justice. Notre Dame students can make the 45-minute drive to Westville Correctional Facility this fall to do just that, he said.

Susan Sharpe, an adviser on restorative justice for the University, and Kelly will lead a three-credit course through the Center for Social Concerns titled “Rethinking Justice: Explorations from the Inside-Out.” Notre Dame students and inmates from Westville Correctional Facility will comprise the class, which will meet at the prison once a week to discuss crime in today’s society.

“We talk about a bunch of things, like privilege in our society and its impacts on people,” Kelly said. “We talk about what prisons are for, what causes people to commit crimes. We talk about the costs of crimes on victims but also on the offenders and the offenders’ families and society as a whole.”

Kelly said the inmates and students will be on “an equal playing field,” completing assigned readings and earning credits from Notre Dame. The group will discuss issues of crime and justice, write several papers and break off into small teams to complete group projects on a subject of their choice, Kelly said.

“Our readings and papers and discussions focus a lot on the causes and costs of crime, and various responses to crime, including alternatives to conventional responses to crime,” Kelly said. “Fundamentally, what we’re doing is bringing two disparate groups of people together in an environment where they can exchange ideas and explore questions, think together, talk together and learn together.”

Senior David Willcutts took the course in the fall of 2012 and said it was “the most important [course] I’ve taken at Notre Dame.”

“The biggest takeaway from the class is that it puts a face to prisons and the justice system,” he said. “These are people that are living in it. I’m sure a lot of people will say our justice system isn’t perfect, but you don’t know until you’ve met the people in it. You form relationships with them, you care about them as individuals.”

Willcutts said the class was a “very interesting life experience” that provided students with the chance to talk and learn alongside people whose paths would never intersect ordinarily.

“It’s one of the most unique experiences you can have at Notre Dame, and it’s a great way you can actually get involved with real world relations and what real people are experiencing in the justice system,” he said. “You will most likely walk away from the class with a very different perspective than you did before.”

Senior Julaine Zenk, another member of the fall 2012 class, said she worked with Willcutts on their final project for the class. Their group created a garden within one of the prison dormitories. Zenk and Willcutts said they enjoyed the chance to collaborate on a constructive, concrete program and the project is continuing even after the class’s conclusion.

“A garden program isn’t going to change people’s lives, but it will help them in some way,” Zenk said. “Even the smallest program in prison can benefit people. You talk to the people there, hear their stories, and a lot of people would think ‘They’re hardened criminals, they don’t care.’ But these guys [in the prison] really care.

“It’s a good-sized, large group of people who actually do want to make a change.”

Kelly said the group doesn’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics but relies on mutual respect and openness to create a forum for real learning.

“In the early going, it’s naturally going to be uncomfortable,” he said. “The nature of the subject matter is such that there are things we talk about that are touchy subjects for some folks, and there are bound to be some moments of discomfort.”One of our jobs is to cut through that discomfort and help break the ice so people on both sides recognize this is an opportunity to learn from one another.

“We hope the students are honest with one another, [that they] aren’t posturing or game playing and we work to develop a sense of trust between the students and ourselves and amongst the students, too.” 

The program aims to “transform thinking” for the long-term, both for the Notre Dame “outside students” and the Westville “inside students,” Kelly said.

“The hope is that   transformation will take place … in the Notre Dame students coming in and finding out that these people they had stereotyped in a particular way as monsters or bad guys are actually human beings just like them, who share similar dreams and are actually very, very good people who made some mistakes,” he said.

“We also want the guys on the inside to think about the experience they’re having in prison and what they can do to make that experience better for themselves and those around them.” 

Zenk said the connections formed among students on both sides were incredible, and the class was the “most fulfilling” she has taken at Notre Dame.

“It was uncomfortable for the first two meetings or so [because] everyone was pretty wary about boundaries, but once we got further into the class we definitely got an open feeling … that really resonated throughout,” she said. “With the outside students at first, you could tell that we were trying to be polite and weren’t all that open, but the inside students were open and upfront right off the bat

“It really was a very open forum, … and a lot of these guys were very earnest. One told us his story one day and I found myself in tears. Every so often, you forgot what setting you were in.”

Kelly said applications for the class during the fall of 2013 semestes are due Thursday. Information and application materials can be found at www.socialconcerns.nd.edu