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New course will meet at prison

Anna Boarini | Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When Professor Ed Kelly began a week of intensive training for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program — three days of which he spent in an actual penitentiary — he found his preconceived notions of prison inmates shaken.

“I was tremendously moved by my week long experience in Dearborn, [Mich.,] with three full days spent in prison,” he said. “I was so struck by their humanity, their brilliance, how articulate some of them were, and how engaged they were.”

The training was in preparation for Kelly’s class next semester, co-instructed by Professor Susan Sharpe, called “Rethinking Crime and Justice: Explorations from the Inside-Out.”

The course will add Notre Dame to the list of 125 colleges and universities participating in the Exchange Program. The program was established in 1997 at Temple University with the mission of facilitating dialogue between inmates and outside students on topics of social problems and the legal system.

The class will pair 15 Notre Dame students with 15 “inside” students. The group will travel 45 minutes to Westville Correctional Facility each Monday night to meet with their partner students.

Sharpe hopes students in the course will receive a transformative experience similar to Kelly’s, and will gain a different perspective on the law and prison system.

“This course will force you to think in new ways about crime and justice,” Sharpe said.

Kelly said the demands on students will exceed just the commute. He said the course’s emphasis on interaction over external study will require students to fully commit themselves.

“This is not a human research kind of course,” he said. “And we’re not serving them either. We’re not going there to offer some charity.”

While extensive one-on-one interaction is at the core of the class, the safety of the outside students is still a concern, Sharpe said.

“The inside students are being screened in two ways. There will be no inside students who have any kind of sexual offenses on their record,” she said. “Beyond that, we won’t know what they’re in [prison] for.”

As a further precaution, students will be on a first-name basis and are restricted from any contact outside of the weekly class time. Students will also be required to sign a limited-anonymity contract.

“This is so when they get out, they can’t go looking for you, and when you get home to the Internet, you can’t look for them,” Sharpe said. “This commitment states you are not there to build a long-term relationship.”

Beyond the screening for criminal history, the inside students will be required to pass a reading test. Still, Sharpe said a lack of education will not inhibit the inmates from benefitting from the nontraditional class.

“They don’t have to have a GED, they don’t have to have had college courses work,” she said. “We know from lots of experience that people without those credentials can do well in a course like this.”