- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) - A handful of Indiana University Northwest students are taking a class with women on work release or house arrest for felony convictions at the Lake County Community Corrections Center.

Only about 300 instructors in the U.S. are certified the class, called Service Learning: Inside-Outside Prison Exchange Program on Offender Re-entry.

Professor Monica Solinas-Saunders is the only IUN instructor certified to teach the class. This is the first time it’s been offered as an elective.

The class is modeled after the Inside-Outside Prison Exchange Program based at the Inside-Outside Center at Temple University in Philadelphia. The Inside-Outside program brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study as peers behind prison walls.

Solinas-Saunders said the class examines issues related to the re-entry of ex-offenders, rehabilitation and social justice. She said the class focuses on the challenges women face when they complete a sentence and go back into the community.

The class, which meets twice a week, is taught at the corrections center in Crown Point. It was two years in the making.

Kellie Bittorf, executive director of Lake County Community Corrections, called it an awesome opportunity for the women.

IU students Elliot Gable, of Highland, Britni Novina, of Portage, and Leslie James, of Hammond, didn’t know what to expect when the class first met. They said some of their classmates were suspicious and unfriendly.

Novina said she was concerned her first day.

“I came in a little late and everybody already knew my name. I was really nervous and scared of them,” she told The Times in Munster (http://bit.ly/1if8oH3 ).

James works at the center, and knew what to expect before taking the class. However, as an officer inside the building, she never interacted or spoke to the women. She said her opinion has changed, and she believes the women deserve a second chance.

Gable said he wasn’t scared of anyone but was uncomfortable in a new environment.

Outside student Ebony Hicks, of Merrillville, said she was a little taken aback when one of the inside clients said she could “black someone’s eye” during a warm-up exercise.

“I kind of felt like she came off aggressive,” Hicks said. “She was trying to put up a tough exterior. As the class progressed, we opened up about our personal life, and they opened up as well.”

Eleny Babilonia, of Merrillville, said she’s led a sheltered life and was taught that “people in prison deserve to be there.” Babilonia said she came in with the mindset that they are all “bad” people, but now understands “they are people just like us.”

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