The “prison course” isn’t the friendliest nickname for a class, as one may be inclined to think of dreary and depressing lectures about the broken criminal justice system. At Wooster, however, the “prison course” refers to professor Anne Nurse’s Deviance and Criminology course that aims to bridge the gap between the “inside” and the “outside.” Offered each spring, Deviance and Criminology is a sociology course hosted at the Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility, roughly half an hour away from Wooster. The class is comprised of both “outside” students from the College and “inside” students who currently reside at the facility.
The course began in 2005, when Nurse received an email about a new kind of course — one that followed the “inside- outside” model and was held at a juvenile correctional facility. A professor at Temple University was doing trainings for this new model and invited Nurse to participate in the first sponsored national workshop in Philadelphia. At the workshop, the instructors and participants brainstormed how to teach a course using the “inside-outside” model.
Once returning to Wooster, Nurse immediately pitched the idea to the dean. The College was highly supportive and Nurse connected with the directors of Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility who were interested as well. The first class was conducted in the spring of 2006, making this year the 14th anniversary.
Deviance and Criminology is taught just like any other college course, with a syllabus, ex- ams, group projects and grades. Nurse explains that she was motivated to start this course at Wooster because “inside” students don’t typically have the opportunity to experience or learn about college. This can be a barrier to “inside” students entering college post-incarceration, despite having the same levels of intelligence, motivation and dedication as their “outside” counterparts. Courses such as Deviance and Criminology help them “test drive” college to prepare for their futures and offers critical skills such as drafting and writing papers. The course also gives “inside” students the opportunity to interact with students around the same age as them.
Deviance and Criminology also allows the “outside” students to witness the criminal justice system from within, challenging biases and preconceived notions about those confined. According to Romeo Philippe ’23, “the ‘inside students’ … are no different from any other [people] I’ve ever met. They have the same dreams and aspirations as the rest of us.” As he continued, “Seeing those students in a juvenile detention center shows me how our society ultimately failed these students and did not provide the opportunities or resources for them to achieve their dreams,” he said.
In order to create a positive and constructive learning environment for all students, Nurse hosts a mandatory informational session for prospective students; this is followed by a thorough application process. Occasionally, both “inside” and “outside” students will volunteer personal anecdotes in class, but this is not an expectation of the course. Instead, it is a reflection of the positive classroom environment fostered by all of the participants.
Nurse also notes that it is important to maintain teachable moments in the class — when faced with the rare uncomfortable moment, she makes sure not to shut people down and instead turn it into a learning experience for the entire class — especially since the “inside” students are used to being silenced.
Sidney Senita ’20, a sociology major, said it was “nerve-wracking” going to the prison for the first time, and that the “anxiety of ice breakers on the first day of class [was] multiplied by having to go through a metal detector and double-locked doors.” After the initial unfamiliarity, however, the class settled into a “normal flow” and has “opened [her] eyes to some of the things [she] takes for granted, like [her] laptop and our library.” Over- all, Senita is “thankful for the class because it has allowed [her] to reflect on criminology while visiting and connecting with people who the policies [they] talk about in class have affected.”
Deviance and Criminology provides a wonderful learn- ing experience for both “in- side” and “outside” students, teaching many of the skills needed to succeed in higher education. Yet it also teaches less academic lessons in understanding and empathy.
If interested in taking the course, it will be offered next in the spring of 2021. Fur- ther information about the application process will be available this coming fall.