- Associated Press - Thursday, May 8, 2014

MARQUETTE, Mich. (AP) - Northern Michigan University criminal justice students are ending this semester with the best understanding of what it’s like to be a prison inmate that can be had without actually living behind bars.

That’s because they spent 15 weeks working with prisoners inside Marquette Branch Prison as part of a senior level special topics course called “Inside-Out,” which brings college students to a prison to take a college course with inmates.

Marquette Branch Prison Warden Robert Napel told The Mining Journal of Marquette ( https://bit.ly/1i0PCBX ) that he knew the program had been used successfully in other correctional facilities and wanted to bring it here.

“It’s a good, collaborative learning experience that gives NMU students the opportunity to study as peers with prisoners here at the prison,” Napel said. “It was a thoughtful dialogue about social and restorative justice and the impact of crime on society.”

A total of 10 inmates and 15 NMU students participated in the class.

“It was a good learning experience for (the inmates), interacting with students from Northern,” Napel said. “It was kind of a win-win situation for both the Northern students who were delivering the program and the prisoners who were receiving it.”

Michael Harrington, the NMU criminal justice professor who headed the class, said all students enrolled in the class completed the exact same course work.

Inmates and outside students also worked together to complete a semester-ending project, drafting proposals of prison programs that could be beneficial to inmates.

Their ideas included allowing pre-scripted video messages to be sent to inmates’ families and training in resume-building to ease the transition back into the working world.

Harrington said one of the course’s main goals was to break down barriers between the inmates and the outside students.

“That’s one of the primary goals of the program, is to get each side to maybe understand the other side more accurately, so students from Northern Michigan would learn about offenders other than just statistics in a book or high profile media-type cases that we tend to read about,” Harrington said. “They hear about the life of real people involved in challenges, failures, mistakes that they have made, and then that same process is repeated for inside students.”

In speaking with NMU students enrolled in the class, that aspect of the course is what seems to have left the largest impression.

“The first couple classes, personally, I was terrified,” said Gabrielle Loew, a senior majoring in criminal justice. “I had never even met a felon, so I had no idea what to expect, but about two or three classes in, I was so ashamed I had felt that way.”

Loew said being a woman in the class made no difference to the inmates, who she said were very respectful of all those involved in the program. She said some of the inmates even had a new-found confidence in themselves, after realizing they could successfully complete an upper-level college course, with some planning to enroll in college upon their release.

“The biases people have against prisons, and people who have been criminals before or people that are locked up, they’re nothing but a bias, they’re not truth,” Loew said. “I think that’s a very hard lesson that I think every single one of us learned there.”

Ben Drymon, a junior majoring in criminal justice and accounting, said it took a while for each group to warm up to the other.

“At first, the class was really quiet. No one really knew what to say or what to do,” Drymon said. “But as the semester went on, it wasn’t that you were sitting next to an inmate anymore. You were sitting next to a classmate.”

Napel and Harrington said the hope is to continue offering the class in the future. Harrington said the university is looking at adding disciplines other than criminal justice to the class as well.

Napel added the course was offered by NMU free of charge to the prison.

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Information from: The Mining Journal, https://www.miningjournal.net

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