By Kevin Matthews
You can’t use a pen to take notes, and you can’t staple your papers to turn them in.
You can’t shake hands, bump fists, high-five or touch others in any way. Some of your classmates get to go home at night. These students also get to know your story, which affects them. But when they leave, they certainly can’t hug you goodbye.
You’re incarcerated. Your life is filled with rules.
Still, you’re going to college; or rather, college has come to you. You’re in a course called Examining Social, Crime and Justice Issues. It’s taught by a tenured California Lutheran University professor and meets where you live inside the walls of Todd Road Jail near Santa Paula. Part of the pioneering, internationally known Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, it’s the first course for both incarcerated (“inside”) and traditional (“outside”) students in Ventura County.
In this class, it’s remarkable what you can do.
You can bring your life experiences to class, raise them in group discussions and rethink them for written assignments.
You can listen and be heard. You can call university students peers and be regarded as a peer.
You can earn college credit.
You can critique the criminal justice system from the inside and map out ideas for reform.
You can own up to things you’ve done to harm your family and community. Or not. You can prepare mentally for the day of your release, or not. You can forgive others and yourself, or not. As a thinker and a searcher for truth, you’re free.
“It took me a while to come out and speak in the class,” said Miguel Viveros, one of the Todd Road insiders who became a Cal Lutheran student for the duration of the spring semester. “At first, everyone was kind of nervous, standoffish. I didn’t know what they were going to think about me.”
When he spoke up, Viveros didn’t make eye contact with his classmates right away. But he looked up finally and “the outsiders [were] all busy taking notes.”
“Now I have no problem. They’re just classmates,” he said. “I found they really want to learn what my perspective is.”
Deep within, the jail has classrooms for vocational and life-skills instruction, including a therapy dog program and an innovative cooking class with safe kitchen tools. Inmates also go to classes to overcome addiction and to deal with anger and anti-social thought patterns, according to inmate programs manager Cecil Argue. Those who never participate in such classes weren’t selected for the Cal Lutheran course, he added.
Before venturing inside, the Cal Lutheran undergraduates and associate professor of criminology and criminal justice Schannae Lucas shed their cellphones and most personal items. As a group, they pass metal detectors and living quarters along the maze leading to a classroom where the inside students are waiting. Security staffers remain on hand, alert to any changes in inmates’ behavior and mood.
There’s a burst of chatter, joking and catching up when the class comes together. It’s past the middle of March and these students know one another, if only by first names. Nine outside students and Jaleena Evans ’18, who works on the course with Lucas as a program assistant, come dressed in their uniform of black T-shirts with the program logo. Everyone settles into chairs in an alternating sequence of inside and outside students and takes a stubby golf pencil for writing as Evans writes the evening’s agenda on a whiteboard. Nine inside students balanced the course until two of them dropped out for different reasons.
Sexes do not mix in jail. Had enough female inmates met the selection criteria, the inside students might have been all women. But they are men. For jail officials, it was “a leap of faith” to allow both female and male students from Cal Lutheran to join the course, said Argue. Corrections officials and the Inside-Out program concur on forbidding extracurricular contact between the inside and outside students. Another strict rule is that the incarcerated students are not to be exploited as subjects for research.
Lucas, the professor, for years has arranged extended jail tours and other real-world learning opportunities for undergraduates. While teaching in the Chicago area, she witnessed the impact on college students “of spending a day in their house, the incarcerated house, then giving us the tour, then talking about their life, their change, the harm they’ve caused to society. My students who were ‘zero tolerance,’ you could see that they had changed. And that was just a one-day experience.”
Now, behind jail walls on this day in March, Lucas has a mixed class in mid-semester discussing links between victimization and criminal offenses, which is one of her main areas of expertise. The conversation turns to why people study criminology. Victoria Rose Meek, who’s taken several of Lucas’ courses and researched prison education with Evans, says: “That’s what I know about this major. You’re learning about people and you’re learning about yourself by learning about other people.”
No one really designs a course to be life-altering. But Lucas knows things about Inside-Out in advance. She knows that her traditional undergraduate students will have their views about the incarceration of 2.3 million people in the United States complicated. She knows that the prison exchange will “humanize a population that we typically don’t value.” And she knows that Cal Lutheran students’ career trajectories could change as a result.
“My dad was in law enforcement,” said Tyler Lozano, a criminology and criminal justice major, on the walk to the last class meeting in May. “I had an attitude like, convict, convict, convict. Now I’m more like, rehabilitate, rehabilitate, rehabilitate.”
After learning about Inside-Out four years ago at a professional conference, Lucas began her training in 2016 at Graterford Prison, a maximum-security state facility outside of Philadelphia. This doctor of philosophy counts “lifers” at Graterford among the people who’ve educated her. Recently, she’s traveled every couple of months to a “think tank” at the state prison in Norco, California, that aims to make prison education more accessible to students of all backgrounds.
Inmates at that facility, California Rehabilitation Center, helped Lucas to select the material for the spring course. They were lukewarm on her initial idea of teaching a family violence course inside a jail. “Then one guy was like, Dr. Lucas, look at this book. It tells me why people commit crimes. … This would be a good one. This would explain why I got in trouble before I came here,” she said.
Since 1997, when Inside-Out was launched at Temple University in Philadelphia, some 30,000 people have participated around the world. Providing a space for critical thinking is essential to the program; however, studying criminology and criminal justice is not. “Only about 25 percent are crim courses,” Lucas said. “The others are English and psych and business. There’s a lot of people with theater courses and Shakespeare courses.”
Lucas hopes to spread the program to more Cal Lutheran departments, and faculty members are already expressing interest. But she sees special value in bringing together offenders – more than half of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent property crimes and drug-related crimes – on a human level with students who are preparing to work in law enforcement, probation and parole, domestic violence agencies, legal practices and nonprofits.
“The beautiful thing of Inside-Out is: I’m going to bring my students who will be working with this population one day on the inside to take a course and to study as peers,” she said.
You can’t take an entire university behind jail walls, in practice. Student services ranging from writing help to mental health counseling aren’t available to inside students in the same way. Further, Lucas knows that she’s leaving her inside students with “heavy subjects” to chew on every Tuesday night.
“What if I asked you, How did it feel when someone harmed you? and you’re thinking about that. How did you feel when you harmed somebody else? What did you gain from harming someone else? What did you lose?
“When the class is over,” she continued, “you have to go back to your cell, get strip-searched again, you know, and go back to your cell and sit on this information. Well, I have [traditional] students coming to my door afterwards to debrief. [Inside students] don’t have that.”
As one response to this need, Lucas’ department and Argue’s Inmate Services group agreed to have Casey Kenney ’18, a mature, 33-year-old undergraduate with a family, spend half of a required internship working specifically with the Todd Road inside students.
“I kind of have to feel them out for their mood,” he said. “It’s a different life in there. If I can kind of see that something else is bothering them, then we have to bring that up.”
Friendly and academically curious, Kenney looked forward to the Thursday student advising sessions, which usually focused on ideas for six-page papers, as “the highlight of my week.” He felt that way in spite of “almost [having] to sit on my hands” to avoid offering a handshake to each new student, to comply with the no-touching rule.
Although never enrolled in the course, Kenney was changed by the Inside-Out partnership.
“Before, I wanted a strictly law enforcement career, something in that realm. And after doing this – there’s so many things on the social services side that possibly could be explored,” he said. Kenney still sees himself as, probably, a police officer.
“When [inmates] leave the facility and they’re put back in society, they don’t have any of the tools that they need,” said the criminology and criminal justice major. “I had heard that before. I had read it. I had attended lectures about it. But it was never solidified until I was physically speaking with them and realized, You are thrown to the wolves when you’re let out of here.”
Inside students know what Kenney is talking about. Some of them have battled to stay out of trouble after returning to their former communities, family members and former friends. They also know because – not an insignificant opportunity – they studied this transition in the course.
“I’ve been under the impression for most of my life that the majority of people couldn’t be rehabilitated,” said Wes Hall, a 30-year-old inside student who, like the others, went through a selection process and interview before enrolling. “But there are ways of rehabilitating people that haven’t been used because of [lack of] funding.”
A number of inside students including Hall have expressed that they want to pursue their education and finish college.
“You have to accept it at face value. They probably each one of them have that intent,” Kenney said. He added, “It’s amazing how education does inspire people. It doesn’t matter who you are or the material you’re learning.”