Students Focus on Criminal Justice System from the “Inside Out”

Students Focus on Criminal Justice System from the “Inside Out”
October 5, 2017

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Jessica Lawrence, a Sociology major who participated in SOC 2010: Crime and Justice Behind the Walls at Rikers Island in the spring. The course is offered at St. John’s University as part of the international Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

Lori Pompa, a criminal justice professor at Temple University, started Inside-Out in 1995 to provide transformative learning experiences for students both inside and out of prison. In 2004, thanks to a Soros Justice Senior Fellowship, Ms. Pompa created training programs and materials for other colleges and universities to replicate the program. Currently, 180 institutions are involved with the program in the United States, with others participating in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.

The course ran for the first time in the spring of 2016 with 20 students, 10 from St. John’s and 10 from Rikers Island. Since then, it has run every semester, and has been offered in both female and male facilities at Rikers. “I’m so grateful for this opportunity, because I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” said Dr. Ryder.

Before coming to St. John’s, Dr. Ryder was interested in studying females in the criminal justice system and researched New York State juvenile and adult correctional facilities. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program allowed her to add an experiential dimension to the courses she was teaching in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at St. John’s.

“For students both inside and outside the criminal justice system, engaging with peers breaks down barriers,” said Dr. Ryder. “If we want to improve the justice system and social justice in America, we need to start working from the inside out.”

In the fall and spring 2017 semesters the course took place at the Rose M. Singer Center, known among inmates as “Rosie’s,” the only women’s facility on Rikers Island. Incarcerated students are selected by Rikers staff from among the facility’s nonviolent offenders between the ages of 18 and 24. Participants must have a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma and submit an essay. Those who complete the semester-long seminar receive St. John’s credit for the course.

“Let this be a beginning for those who have been marginalized,” said Dr. Ryder. “It should be a stepping stone toward college. One incarcerated student described the course as ‘a window of opportunity in a place of hardship.’” According to Dr. Ryder, 80 percent of those incarcerated at Rikers are detainees who have not yet been sentenced; the other 20 percent serve sentences of less than one year.

St. John’s students who participate in the course undergo three orientation and training sessions before they enter Rikers Island. Students meet on Wednesday afternoons behind St. John Hall to travel to the jail in a van operated by an officer from St. John’s Department of Public Safety. The officer waits in the van with the students’ belongings while they pass through security and are escorted to a classroom inside the jail.

St. John’s students wear navy-colored lab coats; they wear a type of uniform just as the “inside” students must. “The dress code was an equalizing experience,” said Jessica. “It reminded us that we are all college students with the same concerns about getting good grades and earning credits.”

Once inside the classroom, the students sit in a circle, with every other person an “inside” or “outside” student. Then, they review selections from both classic and contemporary writers, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Michel Foucault, and discuss aspects of criminal justice and restorative justice.

“It’s an interactive course,” said Dr. Ryder. “I don’t lecture. I seek to facilitate discussion and engage students in various exercises.” She urges students to consider questions such as: Why do we punish? Whom do we punish? Why do prisons exist? What modes of alternative or restorative justice could take their place?  The syllabus covers such topics as Punishment and Rehabilitation; Victims and Victimization; Restorative Justice; and Issues of Reentry.

A goal of the course is to build a sense of community within the classroom, but there are boundaries. To protect privacy and security, the students commit to refrain from contacting one another outside of classroom time, and participants do not use any last names. For the most part, however, the classroom environment feels like being on the Queens campus.

“Once you’re in a classroom, it’s a classroom,” said Dr. Ryder. Jessica agreed that the class environment was “like any other classroom on the St. John’s campus,” even after going through the “intense process” of jail security. In the classroom, said Lawrence, “you forgot you were in a jail.”

The spring 2017 course ended with a final project from all the students: a newsletter entitled, Rosie’s Riveters: Building Bridges from the Inside Out. The students also held a closing ceremony, during which “inside” students could bring family and shared a meal with their St. John’s peers. They received St. John’s T-shirts, read poems about their experience, performed a dance, and received transcripts showing their completed credits. The students from St. John’s took a tour of the Rikers women’s facility and learned more about jail architecture and programs. Jessica was surprised by the services available to the incarcerated women, including the “Common Paws” Program for fostering puppies, a cosmetology school, and a nursery for new mothers.

Though the services available to women at Rikers challenged Jessica's previous ideas about life in jail, she realized the seriousness of the situation for women who are incarcerated there. “The experience at Rikers Island really opened my eyes to how women in the criminal justice system are a vulnerable population, especially because so many women are caretakers for children, parents, and other family members on the outside,” she said.

As part of Dr. Ryder’s course, students discussed the barriers to reintegration into society after incarceration, including the “Ban the Box” movement, which argues against requiring job and school applicants to disclose a criminal history. “I realized that barriers to opportunity are really everything,” said Brianna Billotti ’17C, a Psychology major with an International Studies minor who also participated in the course in the spring. “I still talk about the experience a lot and have nothing but positive feedback. I think it’s important to dismantle false stereotypes about people who are incarcerated. Now I can say, ‘I was there and this is what it’s really like.’”

 “I couldn’t miss this opportunity,” said Ms. Billotti. “There’s so much potential for learning. Wednesdays became my favorite day of the week. We all inspired and empowered each other, and realized that we’re more similar than we are different.”

The successful implementation of the Inside-Out Program at St. John’s University is the result of efforts by St. John’s faculty and administration, along with staff at Rikers, and several students now lend their assistance to increase participation in the program.  After completing the course in spring 2017, one St. John’s student, Dominique Simms ’17C, returned to Rikers as a summer intern in the Education and Youth Advocacy Services Unit, and another, Christina Boccio ’17C is tutoring youth incarcerated at Rikers as an intern with the Petey Greene Program, an organization that supports education access for incarcerated youth. 

Ms. Billotti hopes St. John’s will implement a scholarship for students who wish to matriculate into a degree program after completing a course while incarcerated.  She and several other students from the spring 2017 course are scheduled to accompany Dr. Ryder to the American Society of Criminology Conference in Philadelphia, PA, in November to share their experiences at Rikers. “The course was a great way to learn about injustices behind the walls,” said Ms. Billotti. “Freedom is our most important right, and for inmates, it’s been taken away.”

“Finding ways to increase engagement for diverse student groups is essential to level the educational playing field,” said Dr. Ryder, who is currently working with McNair Scholar Maria Buittago Cohoon ’17C to assess student engagement in the Inside-Out Program at St. John’s. “So far, the data suggest that this experiential, community-based pedagogy is emotionally and academically powerful, with the potential to contribute to individual and societal transformation in line with our University’s Mission.”