New course frees higher ed. from the Ivory Tower

Go directly to jail. Pixabay

Taking education behind bars

Eight University of Regina students will get a unique opportunity in the 2020 Winter semester with the introduction of the English Department’s first ever prison-writing course. Instructed by Dr. Jason Demers, the course will include four weeks of classroom learning about issues related to incarceration and the pedagogy that Demers says, “makes the most sense going into a prison environment,” followed by eight weeks working alongside incarcerated students at the Regina Correctional Centre.

Because of the limited class size, students interested in the course will have to submit an application. Demers will be holding an information session Wednesday, Sept.18 at 1:30 in AH 349 where students can find out more about the class and pick up application forms. Forms will also be available in the English Department office. They’re due by Oct. 1.

“Prison education has become one of the things they look at as a type of initiative that is really good at getting recidivism rates to plummet and getting post-incarceration employment rates to really go up,” said Demers, who has been interested in this kind of programming since he did his undergrad at Queen’s University and had the opportunity to go to Kingston Penitentiary and work on literacy training with an incarcerated man.

He said that south of the border, where states like California have been making efforts to reduce their prison populations, “one of the biggest things they’ve done to decarcerate is they’ve made funding available for people to teach courses inside. They’ve seen an influx of 4,500 students just within two years, from prison into various community colleges and universities and so on.”

Although Winter 2020 will be the first time the U of R has run such a program, Demers said it’s not unique amongst Canadian universities.

“The class will be a hybrid based on two models. Inspired Minds, an initiative based out of the University of Saskatchewan that enlisted students to lead reading and writing workshops at the Saskatoon and Pine Grove Correctional Centres, and Walls to Bridges, an initiative based out of Wilfred Laurier University and the Grand Valley Institution for Women which brings inside and outside students together to learn in a correctional setting.”

The newness of the program is part of the reason there are only eight spots available for outside (U of R) students. “We’re starting small,” Demers said. The eight U of R students will be joined by sixteen students from corrections.

“We’re going to talk to the people who are incarcerated about the things they’d like to read and discuss.”

“[W]e’re going to create reading lists and discuss that in sharing circles.”

While literature is the means, the goal is far greater than straightforward literary analysis, according to Demers.

“I’m hoping that there’s a little bit of relationship-building that happens, that people start to understand people outside of their stereotypes I’m aware that I’m working with the future leaders and policy-makers in this province, and I think that’s the case for the students we’ll have on the other side of that prison wall, too.”

It matters that Demers, along with the course structure, treats students currently behind bars not as projects, but as what they are: future leaders and critically important members of our communities. And it reflects what Walls to Bridges, one of the programs that inspired the course, says in the About Us section of their website.

“An important principle of all W2B courses is that students from outside the correctional system are not ‘mentoring’ or ‘helping’ or ‘working with’ incarcerated/criminalized students: all participants in the class are peers.”

Demers said that for many outside students, prison seems like the most intimidating place you can be.

“But for somebody that’s incarcerated, a school or educational institution isn’t necessarily the most welcoming and safe space to go.”

Demers said that, In bringing academia behind prison walls, he “[. . .] want[s] to create a kind of linkage that breaks down those barriers and those anxieties about going to pursue education further.”

Demers said that statistics around access to education for incarcerated people in Saskatchewan is “sparse,” although he noted that in remand, where people who haven’t been convicted of a crime are held for days, “it’s dead time. There’s no programming.” He said that in the future, the program might reach into that kind of transitional jail, where more than half of inmates in Saskatchewan are currently held. But, he said, “There’s more and more people who are getting that training and starting to offer classes in Canadian prisons.”

The hope of programs and courses like this, that build solidarity between students on both sides of the prison walls, is nothing short of a fundamental shift in the way our society thinks and functions when it comes to incarceration. “I’m really looking at things going in the opposite direction of the way they do now,” Demers said. “Instead of the school to prison pipeline, a prison to school pipeline.”

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