Criminal justice class takes students inside state's oldest prison

By Sanda Vazgec | 9/21/16 8:45pm

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GVL / Courtesy - Mitch Ranger Jacquelynn Doyon-Martin (center). Grand Valley students and inmates at the Michigan Reformatory meet weekly for a criminal justice class.

by Mitch Ranger / Grand Valley Lanthorn

Getting hands-on experience in the field they're studying is something every college student wants. Criminal justice students at Grand Valley State University have the opportunity to take a course in which half of their classmates are incarcerated.

Every Tuesday, 15 GVSU students enrolled in CJ 360: The Inside Out prison exchange program travel to the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia to attend class with 15 inmates inside of the correctional facility. The GVSU students are referred to as “outside students,” while the inmates are known as “inside students.”

Mitch Ranger

GVL / Courtesy - Mitch Ranger Grand Valley students and inmates at the Michigan Reformatory meet weekly for a criminal justice class.

The class focuses on discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system from different perspectives. Various topics covered include: victimization, criminology and theory, prison culture and the myths surrounding incarceration.

Jacquelynn Doyon-Martin, assistant professor of criminal justice, has taught the course four of the seven years the program has been offered at GVSU.

“Here you have people who have actually been through the system,” Doyon-Martin said. “It’s a great way to look at the system in terms of here’s how it says it should work, here’s what the textbook tells you, but let’s look at what’s actually happening.”

Doyon-Martin stressed the course is not a research experiment, it’s simply a college class which happens to take place inside of a prison.

“Both inside and outside students come in with a set of ideas which are then challenged,” Doyon-Martin said. “The idea is to come to this resolution of what’s working, what do we need to improve on and how can we do that.”

The class is offered exclusively as one section during the fall semester. With a limited amount of space available, acceptance into the course is competitive.

In order for a GVSU student to be selected to participate in the program, they must being studying criminal justice as a major or minor and have completed all of the prerequisites.

In addition to this, they must pass a background check, apply for the program and interview with Doyon-Martin, who ultimately decides which students are accepted.

Inmates who wish to take the class must have completed a G.E.D and cannot have any history of criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping or domestic violence charges. They must also be ticket-free for one year in the facility, meaning they have not broken any rules while in prison.

The offenses of the inmates, which range from drug charges to homicide, remain completely private to reduce any bias in the classroom.

Inmates receive a certificate of completion when the class is over which then goes into their parole file.

For security purposes, both inside and outside students must sign a no-contact agreement stating they will not have any interaction outside of the classroom, even in the event an inmate gets released.

To ensure confidentially can be maintained, inside students are known by only their last name and the GVSU students are referred to only by their first name.

Recent GVSU graduate, Lauren Weisner, said the class was an opportunity to gain an experience not many people are able to have.

“We were not there to study the prisoners but rather study with them,” Weisner said. “The inside students brought so many different perspectives to the table and I think that really allowed the class to learn a lot.”

The Inside Out program started in Philadelphia and has expanded throughout various universities across the country, with GVSU being one of the first to adopt it.

“This class gave me the opportunity to learn from someone's lived experiences instead of a textbook,” said Maija Dunham, another GVSU student who has taken the course. “Inside Out isn't just ‘that prison class.’ It's an opportunity to learn about the system first hand, and it was a privilege to be invited into the prison to learn.” 

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