Side by Side: Rutgers–Camden Students and New Jersey Inmates Explore U.S. Correctional System Together

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By Tom McLaughlin

When it comes down to it, says Corey Williams, we are all human.

Looking back over the past couple months, says the Rutgers University­–Camden student, clothes are really the only way to distinguish who among his classmates in the Confinement and Corrections course at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton were inmates or not.

“Everyone has their own thoughtful and intelligent perspectives to share,” says the psychology major at Rutgers–Camden.

The Medford resident was among 20 students – comprised of 11 students inside and nine outside the prison system – who attended the illuminating course, led by Jane Siegel, a professor of criminal justice and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Rutgers–Camden.

The curriculum is based on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange pedagogical model, which enables students inside and outside prison to bridge the social barrier that separates them and explore the American correctional system together.

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Corey Williams

The class was arranged by the New Jersey Scholastic and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) program, based at Rutgers University–Newark, which provides classes for students interested in obtaining an associate’s degree. All inside students are members of the NJ-STEP program.

Meeting every Tuesday night, the students delved into the philosophical underpinnings of correctional systems and how correctional practices are shaped by these philosophies; the variety of ways that society punishes people who break criminal laws; and the benefits, drawbacks, and competing considerations involved in different policy choices.

“The course wasn’t so much focused on students in prison sharing their experiences, although, due to the nature of the course, a lot of that was inevitably happening,” says Siegel. “It’s that students from the inside and outside were learning together to think critically about correctional practices and develop informed ideas about how the justice system should respond to people who break the law.”

In the beginning of the course, both inside and outside students acknowledge, they didn’t quite know what to expect and felt apprehensive about meeting their classmates for the first time. For the past 10 years, says Francisco, an inside student, he had admittedly avoided even having pen pals. However, he recalls, the first class was nothing short of a “watershed moment.”

“The diligence of Prof. Siegel ensured a thorough meeting of minds and hearts,” says Francisco, who plans to earn a master’s degree in religion or philosophy. “The outside students seem to have a thirst for a better understanding of prisons and incarceration in America.”

Christopher, a fellow inside student, echoed the sentiment, noting that he had initially felt overwhelmed at what he saw as his responsibility to inform the outside students of the various malpractices that stymie rehabilitation and foster recidivism. By the end of the first session, however, he was excited for the opportunity for mutual learning and greater understanding.

“I was elated at the prospect of toppling a barrier – ignorance – that separate prisoners from the outside world,” says the Jersey City native.

Of course, getting acquainted was just the first step.

In the weeks to follow, the students explain, Siegel fostered an open, all-inclusive atmosphere to collectively explore a range of topics, such as the theories of crime causation and various punishment rationales. They also examined the history of prisons in the United States, prison types and programs, the reentry into society and parole, and the collateral consequences of incarceration.

“The discussions always presented a variety of opinions that challenged you to think differently, and to understand the biases that you bring based on your own experiences, says Brian Gregg, a Collingswood resident and master of public administration student at Rutgers–Camden. “Nonetheless, the students were always respectful of one another and everyone’s input was welcomed and valued.”

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Brian Gregg

Cliff, an inside student, agreed, noting that the discussions opened his eyes to alternate – and previously unconsidered – points of view.

“During a debate with some outside students, I expressed how unfair the criminal-justice system is,” recalls Cliff, a former Keansburg resident. “I learned that I need to look at issues from the view of society as well; not just as a prisoner.”

According to Williams, many students in the class agreed that prisons are underfunded and overcrowded, and more resources should be devoted to rehabilitation programs.

“There needs to be additional academic programs, as well as services such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and more counselors who could structure these rehabilitative services to meet the inmates’ individual needs,” says the Rutgers–Camden student.

A self-described optimist, Paul, an inside student, says that the class ultimately gives him confidence that the “non-humanistic culture of the current correctional system could change.”

“The reasons for my hope reside in the outside students,” says the Somers Point native and liberal arts major at Salem Community College through the NJ-STEP program. “One student, Johanna, wants to help young offenders before a pattern of incarceration takes over their lives, while Corey and Brian have both expressed interest in helping to connect or reconnect an offender with his or her community both during and after incarceration.”

For Gregg, the class has not only given him a greater understanding of the U.S. correctional system, but has forever impacted his values and beliefs.

“It has taught me about humanity, empathy, compassion, and mercy,” says the Rutgers–Camden student. “These lessons transcend careers and degrees, and I was lucky to have had such an experience.”

For Gregg’s classmate, Jose, an inside student, the lessons likewise hit close to home.

“I learned that education is a powerful, transformative tool that can change how prisoners perceive and react to their environment,” says Jose, a Jersey City native. “Education has given all of us the means and opportunity to change and become better sons, parents, siblings, and better overall people.”

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