KPU connects students and prisoners to break stigma

Criminology students from Kwantlen Polytechnic University are taking part in a program called Inside Out, which pairs the KPU students with inmates awaiting their day in court in the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre. Kate Walker reports.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) and the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre are pairing up to create a new learning opportunity for students aiming to build connections and break stigma.

The “Inside out prison exchange program” is tailored to facilitate dialogue across difference. They pair “outside students” with “inside students” together for one semester and hold the class in prison, a jail, or other correctional setting.

KPU is the first Canadian university to offer a program of this sort. Students in this program are getting an enriching experience out of it.

“The experience itself was incredible,” says Luca Santamaria, a KPU student who completed the course in 2022. “Obviously it’s a shake-up compared to your normal university classes. Half your classmates are incarcerated, there’s lots of security protocols to remember, and it’s inside a pretrial centre. It was definitely eye-opening.”

Students in the program are examining issues related to identity and inequality, studying and practicing communication, developing emotional literacy, and learning to communicate and navigate conflict.

Both sets of students are escorted to a multipurpose room in the prison, then they sit in a circle and look at issues related to inequality, identity, communication, and conflict navigation.

“We all carry around some sociological baggage with regard to how we view people who are incarcerated,” says Santamaria. “Notions of justice, conflict, and healing are not broad blankets we can just drape over each other. Every single human in that building had a story and perspective wholly their own.”

Wade Deisman, the director of Academic Programs with the Justice Institute of B.C.’s Justice and Public Safety Division and a faculty member in the Department of Criminology at KPU, says it’s a chance for both sides to learn about the other.

“What the state and statuses of the inmates on inside, the kind of struggle that they’re dealing with, the kind of road to rehabilitation and reintegration, and what that looks like,” he said. “From the standpoint from the inside students, it’s also a tremendously profound experience for them because it kind of embues their lives with some kind of hope for the future.”

Nicola Harwood, a creative writing instructor at KPU who co-taught Inside Out a communications program, says this is a great opportunity for all types of students to relate to one another.

“Everyone really held each other’s stories with such care. The sense of connection and recognition of our shared humanity in the room was quite profound,” she said. “Incarcerated people are just like us. That’s the big thing that our students come away with. It demystifies what it’s like inside a prison. Students get more politically aware of what incarceration looks like, feels like, and does to people.”

With files from Catherine Garrett.

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