Vanguard University students and inmates at Orange County Jail have been working together to examine problems with the criminal justice system, discuss ways the system can improve, and get to know each other in a classroom setting.
On the final day of this inaugural class, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room during speeches by “inside” and “outside” student leaders in the group of 13 women.
“For many of us this has been the first time in an academic environment in a long time,” student Kristen Smith told the group. “Walking into this classroom week after week has been a huge positive experience for us inside students. Doing time here is a difficult, often discouraging, journey with very limited opportunities to engage in productive uplifting educational programs. This unique academic setting has been a big accomplishment for us.”
The discussion-based class, “Exploring Issues of Crime and Justice,” was held at the Orange County Intake Release Center and placed Vanguard students and inmates side-by-side to delve into criminal justice themes under the direction of Sociology Professor Stephanie D’Auria. Students met for 3.5 hours once a week from February until the class final on May 3, 2018.
“At first, I was nervous, but I was also excited because I knew that this was going to be a taste of my future,” said Vanguard sophomore Kaitlyn Pietrobono, who is working toward a career as a clinical psychologist in a jail or prison. “I learned more in this class than I’ve learned probably in any of my other classes.”
Students read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, as well as related articles, and wrote weekly papers reflecting on the readings. During class, they discussed topics presented in the reading. Many students were afraid to share their opinions at first, but as they developed trust, they became more comfortable contributing to the conversation.
“It was a lot of reading,” Deshondra Willis said. “I still doubted myself a little bit, but I did it, and I’m glad… I’m not scared to share my opinion anymore.”
Willis said she was drawn to the restorative justice material.
“That’s what got my attention the most because you learn from an emotional aspect how it affects everybody around you,” Willis said. “It doesn’t just affect you, it affects your family, the victim’s family, the communities.”
The students spent two weeks working on their final project, which was presented after a closing ceremony that included remarks from Vanguard University administration, D’Auria, and students.
“It’s based on the culmination of everything they’ve learned and worked on through the semester,” D’Auria said. “It really represented negotiation, critical thinking, and collaboration between two groups that aren’t often encouraged to think through and problem-solve together.”
Vanguard graduating student Yazmin Guzman said the class inspired hope for creating a more just society.
“The program helped us see ourselves as agents of social change,” Guzman said.
Michelle Johnson said participating in the class gave her a new perspective on society and softened her heart toward people on the outside.
“I didn’t care about anything or anybody out there,” Johnson said. “Working with the girls in the groups and really getting involved with their thoughts and sharing my knowledge and how I felt, they took it into consideration of me as a person more than an inmate.”
Johnson drew the artwork for the closing ceremony program cover, which D’Auria used as the decoration on a celebratory cake. The final project and Johnson’s artwork are being submitted to the Inside Out national office for display.
During his speech, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Program and Services Manager Geoffrey Henderson advised students to “run to the roar,” reminding them that they faced fear by attending the class. Students on both sides were concerned about being judged, how to act, what the class would be like, how often they would get a bathroom break, and more, he said, yet they ran toward their fear and grew from the experience.
“I hope that this is a program that gets continued on because this seriously has been such an impactful thing for me,” Pietrobono said. “Anybody who does this program will have their life changed, whether it’s inside students or outside.”
“That’s what education is about: life changing,” Vanguard University Provost Dr. Doretha O’Quinn said.
For more information about the international Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, visit insideoutcenter.org.