Hamline News

Prison class breaks down barriers

What do college students and incarcerated individuals have in common? More than Joseph Oliver ’17 imagined before an innovative new class brought him face-to-face with men serving time at the Minnesota correctional facility in Lino Lakes.

The criminology and criminal justice major was one of the first Hamline students to participate in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, designed to bring college students and incarcerated men and women together to study as peers behind prison walls.

“The first day, we were all kind of nervous,” Oliver says. “But as soon as everyone got there, we kind of just clicked and everything melted away.”

Shelly Schaefer, chair of the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Department, brought the international program to Hamline in fall 2015. “The Inside-Out model is all about equality,” she says. Classes start with an equal number of “inside” and “outside” students, chairs are arranged in a circle, and everyone engages in dialogue about crime, justice, freedom, inequality, and other issues of social concern. Hamline students receive university credits for completing the class, and incarcerated students have the opportunity to transfer credits earned to an associate’s degree program offered through the Department of Corrections.

“This class, more than anything, has a strong social justice mission,” Schaefer says. “It’s really going back to how do we retransform our views on the other, and how do we begin to allow a lot of different people to have a voice at the table.”

Several precautions ensure students’ safety inside the prison. All students are screened before being admitted to the class, Hamline students go through the Department of Corrections’ volunteer training program, and there are cameras and emergency phones in the classroom. Only first names are used, and communication between Hamline students and incarcerated students ends at the conclusion of the class.

After the fall semester class, Kelsey McWilliams ’16 says: “I feel like I have a better outlook, that everyone isn’t the worst thing that they’ve ever done. I used to think there’s an 'us' and a 'them.' Now it’s more of a collaboration.”

—Julie Carroll