© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Roanoke College & County Jail Adopt Exchange Program

Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ

A course at Roanoke College is the latest example of an exchange program that’s having a long-term impact for some. 

It pairs traditional students with those housed in the county jail. They spend a few months studying together, but also learning about one another. The Inside-Out program lets ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ – 17 students in all – meet three hours at a time, at the Roanoke County Jail.  The curriculum this spring is criminal justice, including juvenile delinquency, and white collar crime.

They split into groups during part of the class.  One of them is performing a skit on the release of an insider who’s trying to adjust to society, and interview for a job – but he’s turned down due to his criminal background. Andrew played that role in the skit – (class insiders were only referred to by their first names to protect their privacy.) 

He says the class has been rewarding, and will encourage others housed in the jail to enroll the next time it’s offered.

“I’m always labeled before someone actually gets to know me,” Andrew said. “People can get to know you before they judge you. I’ve been using parts of my brain that I haven’t used in a long time. This is really good for inmates – getting them a push in the right direction for changing their lives around.”

There were some rules in place before all the students met.  The Roanoke College students were not to ask those housed inside the jail about their past.  All ‘insiders’ that enrolled required at least a GED or high school diploma, and the two groups of students can have no contact once the course is over.

They (the 'insiders') wanted this to be a rigorous academic experience, and thus, the credit would mean something to them.

Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Professor Daisy Ball says they also banned use of labeling language – or words like ‘inmate’ or ‘felon’ to make the insiders more comfortable.

“The outsiders have just been overjoyed from the fact that – from the very first class period, as soon as the nerves disintegrated, they forgot that they were not just with another group of Roanoke College students,” she said.

Since its launch at Temple University more than 20 years ago, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program has been offered at jails and prisons in 24 states, including Virginia, as well as 6 other countries.

Dr. Ball got some training through Temple, at a maximum security prison – and later taught the course at a women’s prison.

“They wanted this to be a legitimate college class, they did not want this to be a dumbed down version, or a kind of ‘Kumbaya’ version of ‘oh, let’s just get together and talk about our feelings,” she said. “They wanted this to be a rigorous academic experience, and thus, the credit would mean something to them."

Ball says for many of the insiders, the college credit is symbolic, but she does have anecdotal evidence of some later taking community college courses.  Ball pitched the class to Roanoke County Sheriff Eric Orange shortly after coming to teach in the area. He was quickly on board, and has already been looking at ways to upgrade when the class meets again.

Credit Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ
Roanoke College student and intern Deanna Bracken and Dr. Ball discuss lessons during class at the Roanoke County Jail (the sheriff's department required photos of class insiders were taken from behind to protect their privacy.)

“I think with some of the individuals, I don’t know if blindly is the correct term, but they went in with limited information, as to what the class would entail, what the curriculum was going to be about, what to expect from the interactions,” Orange said. “And so as we’ve completed this first class, it’s kind of given us an idea of what we’ll see moving forward.”

Some of the Roanoke College students in the class are studying criminal justice, but there is a wide range of majors within the class, including international relations and political science. 

Senior Deanna Bracken studies sociology, but with an emphasis on crime, and social control. She’s also an intern, and leading some lessons.

“The biggest fear I had coming in was - I don’t want to say something that’s going to offend anyone, or I don’t want to assume – it was more like, ‘I’m scared that I’m going to make somebody else uncomfortable – an insider,’ she said. “And that’s not happening, because they’re so open, and they want to learn, and they want to be here.”

Ball says the next class - may also include an insider who is taking the class for a second time.

“And so at previous facilities where I’ve taught this, I’ve had an inside intern, and an outside intern,” she said. “And that inside intern has shown the guys who haven’t taken the class the ropes – they’ve come to me about their abilities to fulfill assignments, or what have you.”

This Inside Out course will culminate in group writing and research projects late next month. 

That last meeting will include an audience – including Roanoke College and county jail administrators to gauge the program’s success.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.