Baker University students and inmates at Topeka Correctional Facility together are learning about the criminal justice system and generating ideas on how to solve problems related to crime and the administration of justice.
Fifteen Baker University students and 15 inmates were selected to take part in a spring semester class modeled after the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The class meets Wednesday nights at the women’s prison.
“It’s the first time in Kansas for this program,” said Colene Fischli, facility services administrator at the prison.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program originated in 1997 at Temple University when instructor Lori Pompa took a class to a prison for a question-and-answer session with inmates.
When the session turned into an in-depth discussion, an inmate suggested a class be developed for those “inside” and those “out” of the criminal justice system.
Jacob Bucher, assistant professor of sociology at Baker University, said the class brings together individuals of different backgrounds, ages, educational levels and perspectives to discuss such topics as prison life, punishment, rehabilitation, victims and restorative justice. “It’s a student-driven class,” Bucher said, explaining his role is more as a facilitator than an instructor.
The class typically begins with the students and inmates discussing assigned reading materials for about 20 minutes. Bucher reached into his own pockets to buy the required books for the inmates because they have little money and a donor couldn’t be found.
After the discussion, the students break into small groups to work on various activities or projects.
Inmate Michelle Eicher, who was convicted in 2007 for the unlawful manufacturing of controlled substances, said she applied for the class because she needed some “intellectual stimulation.”
“We can be taken seriously in the class,” she said.
For the past few weeks, the class has been working on a reintegration proposal that will be presented to prison warden Richard Koerner and Baker University president Patricia Long in May. The proposal will address housing, education, re-entry into the workplace and other issues.
Michael Weaver, an Odessa, Mo., junior majoring in business, said the class has opened his eyes to “the facts and the myths” of the prison system.
Bucher said one of the rules of the course is the students and inmates are to have no post-class contact.
“I think it’s been successful,” Bucher said of the class. “They’ve learned about the criminal justice system, but more about themselves.”