Inside/Out Students Study Together at Imperial Jail
When he dropped out of high school, Pedro thought academics weren’t for him. But in the Imperial County Jail his mind was freed. Because Pedro had been successful in his rehabilitative programming, counselors offered the young father a chance to enroll in a course offered by Imperial Valley College at the county’s day reporting center next to the jail. There, college students take courses for credit alongside inmates serving sentences. “I never thought I would be in college,” Pedro said. “This gives me the confidence to know I can do anything.” Inside/Out, founded at Temple University, is a national program pairing college students with incarcerated men and women to study and learn as equals. It teaches outside students that life can turn on a bad decision, and inspires confidence in inside students who might have lacked inspiration and role models in education. “This is one of the best programs I’ve seen in my entire career as a law enforcement officer,” said Sheriff Raymond Loera. “In just a short time we have seen positive reactions from the inside and outside students. These guys and women have really turned around. When they see they can be as successful as the outside students, their confidence goes way up.”
The program at the Imperial County Day Reporting Center is the first in California, though there are at least 100 worldwide. It is run by Gaylla Finnell, a doctoral candidate at San Diego State University and the Distance Education Coordinator at IVC, who had previously worked as an Imperial County Probation Officer. Inspired by Public Safety Realignment, she began researching corrections education to see how community colleges could create effective reentry programming. When she ran across the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, she knew she wanted to try it. (http://www.insideoutcenter.org/) The program “brings college students and incarcerated individuals together as peers,” according to the website. The hope is that they develop greater understandings of one another and that students begin to see themselves as potential agents of social change. “Most programs include correspondence classes, but effective transformation doesn’t occur unless you are interacting with other students,” Finnell said. “Learning together is the best model.” The program is a collaborative effort of IVC, the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office and the Imperial County Probation Department. The agencies worked together on safety and security issues, and on rules of behavior for inside and outside students. The 15 outside students must wear identical blue IVC t-shirts to class to distinguish themselves from the 15 inside students who forgo their jail garb for maroon polo shirts during class time.
“More people are starting to support the program,” Finnell said. “We are seeing a change in the culture at the facility and an increase in support at IVC. People want to be a part of it. It’s an amazing experience to see the change in individuals when they realize there is opportunity through education, which studies have shown is the most effective method of decreasing recidivism.” Inside students are eligible to apply for both a California BOGG Fee Waiver and a Federal Pell Grant to help cover tuition and textbooks. The students are taking courses in the Alcohol & Drug Studies program, one of the professional fields in which former felons can secure jobs. In the fall of 2015 students were earning three units for studying “Alcoholism: Intervention, Treatment and Recovery.” Besides earning credits, those incarcerated students whose crimes were driven by addiction are learning about the impacts those decisions made on brain function, decision-making and overall health.
“It’s a certificate program and a career path they can follow with a felony conviction,” Finnell said. The outside students appreciate the perspective they get from students dealing with some of the same issues they hope to someday treat. “There are book smarts and there are street smarts, and I can get both in this class,” said one outside student as she waited for class to start. Outside student Matt was formerly incarcerated in the state prison system, but now wants to work with foster children treating addictions. He says if educational opportunities had been available to him in prison he might have straightened himself out sooner. “I hope I am an inspiration,” he said. “I’ve not been the greatest human on earth but I move forward and try to be a better human being.”
There are strict rules of admission for the insiders. All offenders must not have a violent offence, escape attempt or have tried to smuggle drugs into the facility. To be eligible for the program they need to have achieved “off-compound” clearance, said Jamie Clayton, Chief Deputy of Corrections. Once in class there is no touching allowed, or communication outside of class. Nothing can be brought to class except classwork (inside students carry clear backpacks and outside students carry an IVC bag). The inside and outside students use separate restrooms. By the third semester just two inside students had been removed from the program: one for asking for an outside student’s telephone number; the second for possessing a ball point pen in his cell (only pencils are used in class).
The ones who succeed find it life-changing. Miguel had five weeks left on his sentence when we visited, and was proud to envision that he would complete the course wearing the blue IVC t-shirt worn by outside students (he did). With Finnell’s help and assistance with financial aid, he will enroll at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert next semester. He realizes through the course that his drinking problem led to a host of bad decisions, including one to transport drugs. “I always thought I wasn’t like an addict, but this course has taught me that I’m just like them,” he said. “Drinking is not good for me.” He hopes to study business classes when he’s released so that he eventually can open his own construction business.
Pedro is in his third semester in Inside/Out, and had planned to take his California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE) on October 17. Succeeding in class “has inspired me to continue with my education,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to the same thing; I want something better. Now I understand that a lot of people work hard and they get what they want. I want that to be me,” Pedro said. More information regarding the Imperial County Inside/Out College Program can be found at the IVC Inside/Out website at www.imperial.edu/inside-out.