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Inside Knowledge

Criminal justice students experience learning inside local prison

As an aspiring police or correctional officer, Benjamin, ’24, may one day be putting people behind bars. This semester, Benjamin sees inmates in a different light: as classmates. 

He is one of a dozen Bridgewater State students (joined by roughly the same number of inmates) taking a class inside the Plymouth County Correctional Facility.

“It’s an eye-opening experience,” said Benjamin, a criminal justice major and sociology minor. “It provides a different perspective on incarceration in the U.S.” 

The course, taught by criminal justice instructor Stephen Simms, is part of an educational movement called Inside-Out. The initiative strives to connect college students (called outside students) and inmates (inside students).

The Bridgewater class, which for privacy reasons is conducted on a first-name-only basis, meets for 2.5 hours a week. Students sit in a large circle alternating between inside and outside students. Without the distractions of cell phones (which visitors cannot bring into the jail), classmates engage in deep conversations that consider a criminal justice system based on love and compassion rather than punishment.

“The real magic in this course is the conversations that emerge from interactions with inside and outside students,” Simms said.

For the first time at BSU, inmates who complete the course will receive college credit. Simms hopes they are inspired to pursue further education, which research shows makes them less likely to re-offend.

“I will carry with me the belief that I can hold my own in a class/college setting,” inside student André said, noting the class helps him realize he is not too old for school.

Fellow inside student Franky said he will now seek to participate in more substantive conversations that contribute to improving society. 

The class helps him, “gain insight from people from different backgrounds, opinions and views of the justice system, which gives me more patience for those who are quick to judge people in my position,” he said.

The course complements jail programming on anger management, behavior change and other topics, said Sandra Crispin, ’05, G’10, program manager for the sheriff’s anti-violence unit.

“It’s to broaden their minds and have them realize there is a bigger world beyond the one they may have left,” Crispin said. “There are opportunities out there.”

For outside students, the course explores the criminal justice system in a way that a traditional class can’t replicate, said Meagan, ’24, a sociology major and criminal justice minor.

“It’s so different to be able to go in and experience this and not just learn it from a textbook,” she said.

Meagan and Benjamin now see inside students as not all that different from themselves.

“The perceived notion that is a driving force of American society today is that these people are all bad because they’re locked up,” Benjamin said. “But these are human beings. … You need to have an open mind and keep your heart open.”

That’s what Meagan is doing as she considers a career helping inmates re-enter society.

“After getting their perspectives, it makes me want to do this even more,” she said.

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