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Cal Poly Students Join County Jail Inmates for Unique Class Experience

By Ryan Alaniz

It was the thud of the solid metal door that caught my attention.  For the next hour and a half, 12 Cal Poly students and I were locked in a room with nine inmates. As we entered the hall, the nine “inside” students (inmates) had already been seated. Tension filled the room. One of the inside students smiled and invited an “outside” Cal Poly student to sit next to her — and everything changed.

Our SOC 400 course, Incarceration and Society, had two goals: to provide a Learn by Doing opportunity for Cal Poly students to understand the experience of the incarcerated and to provide the inmates the experience of attending a university class (and hopefully encourage them to continue their education). Topics of the class ranged from systems of oppression to family and theories of criminology to social change.

It was led less by me as professor than by the students themselves. Each week students read an article or some book chapters and wrote a reflection paper, tying the reading to their experience. We would begin the class with small-group sharing based on their essays and then open it up to larger discussion. The results were incredible; I have never had the depth of critical thinking and interaction in any other class. 

One example may clarify this point. Students were assigned a chapter from Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” I knew it would be a difficult reading for all of the students due to the complex vocabulary. However, to make sense of it, one of the inside students had replaced all of the words “oppressor” with the name of her ex-husband and all of the words “oppressed” with her own name. She spoke of the abuse in her relationship, and how the abuse and depression led her into drugs, which led her to be incarcerated. The class was stunned. It was an incredibly lucid and pragmatic interpretation of the reading, one that illustrated to the Cal Poly students the intellect and humanness of the inmates who are often negatively stigmatized by society.

One of the most important lessons of the class was the breaking down of stereotypes and social barriers between neighbors. Many of the Cal Poly students did not realize that our campus shares a fence with the California Men’s Colony prison and is only a five-minute drive from the county jail. Inmates are our neighbors, and yet they remain invisible, reproducing the social divide between “us” and “them.” 

However, this class, one of only a handful in the nation, provided a bridge for interaction and learning. As one of the Cal Poly students explained, “I got to talk to the inmates, and it brought humanity to every inmate that I talked to. Some of them have children and some wanted to get out and spend time with them. It made them seem just like I could have been in their place. It could have been me.”

To deepen the experience of the class, Cal Poly students spent at least 12 service-learning hours volunteering in the jail or juvenile hall with the incarcerated. Work opportunities included gardening, doing yoga with inside students, participating in non-violent communication programs, and tutoring at the juvenile hall, among others. Volunteering provided further occasion to understand the penal system from the inside, as well as deepen relationships with their fellow inside colleagues.

The lessons for both inside and outside students cannot be adequately measured. Inside students discussed the new perspective they have on our criminal justice institutions and the social structures under which we live. Others expressed interest in attending Cuesta College upon release.

A Cal Poly student summed it this way: “I think it was life-changing. It taught me not to judge people right away. It made me a better human being.”

As a faculty member, I was honored and humbled to have facilitated this class. I was changed as much as any of the students, and I look forward to facilitating the course again this winter quarter.

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