December 21, 2009

Inside-Out: Students and Inmates Learn Together

Class allowed students and inmates to engage in open discussion

This semester, the two worlds of Lafayette College and Northampton County Prison intersected on a weekly basis when a class of Lafayette students joined several inmates for a course taught inside the prison. The course, “Women and the U.S. Criminal Justice System,” was taught by Bonnie Winfield, director of Lafayette’s Landis Community Outreach Center.Offered for the first time this fall, the class allowed the Lafayette students and “inside students,” as the inmates were called, to engage in open discussion. Winfield explains, “I wanted each group to experience a true dialogue in which a diversity of voices could be heard. I think that once you have experienced this you know it can happen and will work towards this level of listening, speaking and trusting in the future.”

The Lafayette students found that it was easy to relate to the inside students and get past any preconceived ideas they may have had.

“Having actual names and faces to put to the stories the women were telling us made us sympathetic towards the situation in a way you cannot be by simply reading about experiences,” says Lexy Pierce ’10, an American studies major.

Many students, both inside and outside, became interested in the justice system as a result of the class. One inmate, Donna, explained her intention to help fight recidivism after she is released. “There is a revolving door; people end up back here for one reason or another. This course gives a lot of us hope. It made me realize that I want to be the stopper in that revolving door.”

Pierce also felt that she benefitted from the course’s unusual structure. “We were able to take what we were reading outside class and integrate it into our class discussions with the inside students,” she explains.

The connection the groups shared was obvious at a “graduation” ceremony that took place in the prison on Dec. 9. Reporter Tony Nauroth attended the class and wrote about it in the next day’s edition of The Express-Times:

Sarah Shuster, a 19-year-old Lafayette student from Queens, N.Y., said the course forced a collision of two worlds. “We really hit some sparks,” she said.

Those sparks illuminated a common belief shared by most classmates that they had more in common with each other than they had thought when they went into this adventure.

“I was a little nervous working with people from a college,” said inmate Tiffany Jordan. “But they opened up to me.”

Several Lafayette students vowed to take the message of what the women’s criminal justice system is truly like out into the world beyond the walls and bars where the classes were held…

posted in Academic News, Involved, Focused, and Active Students, News and Features

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