Sara Klassen’s final class at Goshen College didn’t take place in the Florida Keys or the African savannah or among Roman ruins, where many of her friends were studying during May Term. Her final class took place in a windowless room deep in the Elkhart County jail.
Klassen, along with 11 other GC students, took part in a class called the Inside-Out Exchange Program, which brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study as peers behind prison walls. The course was co-taught by Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, associate professor of peace, justice and conflict studies, and Glenn Gilbert, utilities manager and sustainability coordinator at Goshen College.
During orientation on the first day, after clearing security, the Goshen College students toured the 400,000-square-foot Elkhart County Correctional Center, which has housing for 768 minimum- and medium-security inmates, and up to 168 maximum-security inmates.
“It felt like a people zoo,” Klassen said. “That whole first day was a de-humanizing experience.”
On the second day, the Goshen College students met the 12 “inside” students for the first time. These inmates were specifically recommended for the course by the jail staff.
The class met in a stark room at the jail, sitting in a circle of chairs, alternating between “inside” students and “outside” students. After some icebreakers and get-to-know-you games, a circle of trust quickly began to form.
“As hard as that first day was, it was a complete 180-degree turn to go into class on the second day and almost immediately form this great bond with these guys,” Klassen said.
In that first session, the group agreed on a covenant to use first names only, to refrain from judgment, to speak openly and honestly, and to be a place where everyone can let their guard down.
“After the first five minutes, seeing the warm smiles and friendly faces of the college students, I knew this would be different,” said Mike, an inside student in a khaki jail jumpsuit. “They treated us as equals, and that created a bond with all of us, a friendship we could never forget.”
A different approach to justice
The activities and conversation in the class centered around concepts of violence and non-violence, crime, the criminal justice system and the role of race, gender and class within it. They ended the course with lively and hopeful discussions about restorative justice and the roles of offender, victim and community.
A restorative justice approach has been shown to reduce the number of repeat offenders and to increase victim satisfaction. Interestingly, the first victim-offender reconciliation program in the United States began right down the road from the correctional facility in Elkhart 36 years ago by Goshen College alum Howard Zehr, known as the “grandfather of restorative justice.”
According to Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers, programs like this, in which inmates are treated with respect and their voices are heard, are good for the inmates and ultimately good for the community.
“We’re not just in the business of warehousing inmates. That doesn’t do us any good,” Rogers said. “We believe that programs like this change hearts and minds. In the interest of public safety, it behooves us to send them out better than when they came in, since most of these inmates do end up back in the community. This class empowers them.”
The idea and numbers behind it are compelling, but you need only to talk to the students in this class to know that it’s changing lives.
“I believe that if, in fact, I come back to any facility of incarceration, it will be as a volunteer, finally being part of the solution to the problem instead of part of the problem,” Brian, an inmate in the class, wrote in his journal.
“Inside” student Mike added, “restorative justice offers opportunities to bring the two parties together and finds a way for all parties to be made whole. When I get out, I hope to carry this message on.”
A “holy endeavor”
The international Inside-Out program was founded in 1997 at Temple University and Graterford Prison, both in the Philadelphia area, and has since spread to more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States and around the world. The program was founded on the idea that incarcerated men and women and college students might mutually benefit from studying together as peers.
“If you came in this room and closed your eyes and just listened to what was going on, you wouldn’t know that you weren’t in a college classroom,” said Lt. Kris Klosinski, who manages the educational programs at the Elkhart County Correctional Center.
However, unlike Inside-Out classes at other universities, which meet over the course of a full semester, the Goshen College program was more intensive, with classes meeting almost daily over the course of the month of May.
This intensive schedule works well at a county jail, where inmates tend to have shorter stays as they await trial or serve short sentences. This is the first time an Inside-Out class has taken place within such an intensive timeline, which, according to Gilbert and Schrock-Shenk, helped make the experience even more moving.
“Education is a holy endeavor, and this has probably been the holiest endeavor I’ve ever had the privilege to take part in,” said Schrock-Shenk. “I was told during the Inside-Out training that these classes are powerful and transformative for many who participate in them. I believed it at some level, but honestly, I thought they were probably exaggerating. However, for the last three weeks I’ve been experiencing it and the word I’ve used most often is ‘amazing.’”
In their final session, the class invited Goshen College President Jim Brenneman and former president Vic Stoltzfus, who, along with Schrock-Shenk, helped clear several hurdles to get the class started. Several students provided personal reflections, and certificates were given to everyone in the class. At one point, the class launched into an emotional rendition of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Speaking to the whole group, Sheriff Rogers expressed gratitude for the class and hope for its future in the Elkhart County Correctional Center.
“We’re privileged to have Goshen College students here, it’s brave of them to come in and let their guard down and share their hearts. We went into it not knowing how it would go, but I’m excited about the outcome,” he said. “The success shows that it’s possible.”
Klassen couldn’t think of a better way to finish her college career.
“I felt so honored that my last class at GC could be such an embodiment of everything that I’ve been studying in my peace, justice and conflict studies classes,” Klassen said. “Everyone was more engaged in this class than in any class I’ve ever taken; there was this sense of privilege to be able to be together and share from such different places in life.”
“It definitely pushes me to want to stay involved,” Klassen added. “These inmates are a significant part of our community. This is our county jail, and our tax dollars go to work here, so it’s important to be aware and involved with what goes on here.”
– By Brian Yoder Schlabach