A college course teaches about criminal justice reform and challenges stereotypes.

In a Sociology 2211 class in late October, Ohio State professor Angela Bryant guides a discussion about the stereotypes of what a victim looks like. Students volunteer words like “vulnerable” and “fragile,” as well as “women,” “white” and “wealthy.” Then Bryant gives them the demographic reality: The people most likely to be harmed by violent crime are male, black and impoverished.

“The images we have of victims are inaccurate,” she tells the class.

Breaking down stereotypes is a major component of the course, particularly for students who will enter the criminal justice field, Bryant explains to me a few days before I attend her class. “I want people to go into the system and realize these [inmates] are human beings, not just statistics.”

It’s unlikely they’d ever fail to make that distinction afterward. This particular sociology class is Corrections: An Inside-Out Course, and it meets for three hours each week for shared sessions among college students and inmates in the visitation room at Southeastern Correctional Institution in Lancaster. It’s one of 19 Inside-Out courses in Ohio; the program was developed in the 1990s and includes more than 140 higher-education institutions and more than 150 correctional facilities in seven countries and 33 states. To date, more than 1,000 Inside-Out classes have facilitated collaborative education in subjects ranging from criminal justice and law to drama, philosophy and gender studies.

Bryant has been teaching Inside-Out courses since 2009. Her fall semester class studies the American criminal justice system, examining how incarceration became the behemoth it is today—U.S. inmates constituted about one-fifth of the worldwide prison population in 2015, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research—and how it might be changed. The fall 2018 class comprises 10 OSU undergraduates, or outside students, and 12 inmates, or inside students.

“These [inmates] are mostly folks just like us,” Bryant says, citing how factors like addiction, poverty and race can contribute to disproportionate levels of incarceration among different populations in the U.S. “All of us violate the law. We’re actually policing different[ly] in different communities.”

Ryan, an OSU freshman and criminology major, wasn’t immune to the stereotypical portrayal of prisoners. (Students in Bryant’s class identify only by first names or nicknames, to protect privacy and to prevent inappropriate contact outside of the class.) “Of course I had stereotypes that it was going to be dangerous in some shape or form, even though I knew better, but it was instantly made clear to me that that’s not what it was going to be like,” he tells me. “The inside students are very kind and nice, genuine people, as opposed to what you see in the media.”

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting [inside students] to be as educated and as ready and interested to learn as they are,” says Amanda, a senior studying social work and criminology who hopes to serve as a mental health counselor in a prison someday. “I’ve had some of the most meaningful conversations … with this population.”

In the makeshift classroom in October, the students’ level of engagement is remarkable once they grow accustomed to my presence. Whether in a large circle or in small discussion groups, conversation is abundant and easy. There are plenty of opportunities to share both serious anecdotes and jokes. During a breakout session, laughter rings out from one group even as another delves into a somber discussion about sexual assault. Students are quick to share personal details.

“I’m not ashamed of my past,” says Ron, an inside student who’s two years into a three-year sentence. “It’s made me who I am today.” He’s taking the class to better himself, he tells me, and hopes to work in recovery counseling, based in part on his own experiences with addiction and the legal consequences he’s faced as a result. He’s earned 46 college credits during this incarceration, his fourth.

For Karl, an inside student serving a sentence of nearly five years, the class is an opportunity to raise awareness. “I hope they’ll understand that long-term incarceration isn’t helpful. It’s expensive, and it creates hardened criminals,” he tells me. “A majority of the people in here have a lot to offer society.”

The class ends with a spirited debate about addiction, fueled by an inside student’s incredulity that someone can be addicted to food. Then Bryant assigns a project: write a one-page essay on what students would change about America’s criminal justice system.

“I think I could write 12 pages on that,” Amanda tells me a few days later. “Every time I learn more about the criminal justice system, I am more and more disappointed with the way that it functions.”

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