A unique experience for students who dare to learn differently

Posted on Friday, June 12, 2020

Barbed wire wall

If you thought waking up early and getting to your lecture on time was tough, imagine going through maximum security at a detention centre to get to class. This graduating class from the Faculty of Social Sciences did exactly that, as part of uOttawa’s Walls to Bridges (W2B) program.

“This isn’t a class that you can hit snooze and then show up,” explains uOttawa professor Jennifer Kilty. “uOttawa students have to commit to it.”

A Canadian offshoot of the American program Inside Out, Walls to Bridges invites postsecondary institutions across Canada to teach courses in a correctional facility, to both students and prisoners, so they can learn together as peers.

Professors Kilty and Sandra Lehalle of the Department of Criminology brought the program to uOttawa in 2018 and have been teaching their course, Othering and Criminal Justice, inside a provincial detention centre ever since. Half the class is made up of detainees, or “inside” students, and the other half—the “outside” students—are undergraduates enrolled in a Faculty of Social Sciences program.

Because men and women detainees are segregated, the course can only be offered to one group at a time. Winter 2020 was the first time it was offered to incarcerated women.


Teaching and learning under lockdown

“We carpool to get to the detention centre,” says Kilty. “It’s important that we all show up early and at the same time, because we only have one shot at going through security. If there are any delays, too bad. They’re not going to give us more time.”

On arrival, students must put all their personal belongings into a locker, including their cellphones and wallets. One by one, they pass through a metal detector and get checked for contraband, like at the airport. Then, they hand over a piece of ID in exchange for a visitor’s badge and wait for the rest of the group to go through security as well.

The inside students are easy to distinguish from the outside students because of their uniforms—orange jumpsuits for men, light pink shirt-and-pant combos for women, and navy-blue slip-on sneakers. When it gets cold, they wear forest green sweats.

The detention centre provides them with small, soft-covered journals for their course assignments, because they can’t have metal or string bindings, and the profs provide printouts of the readings. They are not allowed to use pens—only little IKEA-like pencils.

“The institution is extremely risk averse,” says Kilty. “It affects how we do everything in the class. Incarcerated students don’t have access to computers. So, to keep things fair for everyone, the outside students also write their assignments by hand—no spellcheck!”

Portrait of professors Sandra Lehalle, left, and Jennifer Kilty, right.

Criminology professors Sandra Lehalle, left, and Jennifer Kilty, right.

Customized learning for both inside and outside students

Kilty and Lehalle designed their course using Indigenous-inspired pedagogy. To help create a safe space for students to share their thoughts, they all sit in a circle and take turns speaking using a talking stick—or in this case, because it doesn’t have sharp edges, a football made of foam.

“One of the mottos we used to develop the course is ‘bring and learn from your whole self,’” says Kilty. “The idea is to learn from both academic readings and from other people’s histories, world views and experiences. So long as the inside students can read and write, and they demonstrate a willingness to participate, we welcome them into our class.”

“All of our knowledge is put into the centre of the circle to be shared,” says Lehalle. “We’re learning from one another. It’s a heavy course emotionally for everyone involved, but also very rewarding.”

Kilty and Lehalle receive 50 to 100 applications from university students each term. There are only six to eight spots available per course, so the selection process is competitive. For inside students, the detention centre vets the applicants selected by the professors.

“I remember my first day walking into the detention centre with a great deal of nerves and a very biased opinion of what prisoners were like,” says Jenna, who is graduating with a bachelor’s in criminology and women’s studies.

“Everything we shared in that class was met with understanding and compassion. Being exposed to their perspectives and hearing the emotion in their voices as they talked about situations that impacted them, I quickly came to realize that my inside classmates were no different than me.”

W2B courses can tackle any subject matter and be taught by any interested faculty member willing to take the required instructor training. As a participating institution, the University of Ottawa covers the incarcerated students’ tuition costs and grants them university credits if they pass the course, which they can put towards a degree or certificate.

“At first, the inside students might be a bit stressed, wondering how they’ll fit in with university students and if they’ll be able to keep up,” says Lehalle. “But they always have great things to contribute and they realize: ‘I can do this. I could go to university.’ It’s a nice discovery for them.”

Jennifer Kilty and Sandra Lehalle wish to acknowledge and thank Wilfrid Laurier University Professor Shoshana Pollack for developing the Walls to Bridges program and introducing it to them. Without her hard work and dedication, W2B would not exist at uOttawa.

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