When Collin first set foot inside William Head Institution, he admits he was apprehensive.
His mind was immediately flooded with pre-conceived notions of what he thought being incarcerated would be like – structure, metal bars and concrete keeping offenders in.
He had worked as a guard in a psychiatric centre, and thought he knew the type of people who were behind bars and the acts they committed to get there.
But those preconceived notions have since been shattered, as part of a new program through Royal Roads University. Collin is currently participating in a pilot program called the Inside Out Prison exchange program, in which 13 students (known as outside students) learn alongside 13 offenders (known as inside students) at the minimum security facility in Metchosin.
As part of the 13-week course, students, who are known only on a first-name basis, gather at the institution on Fridays for the three-hour program.
Students sit in a circle and learn the background, development and main features of legal traditions around the world, covering everything from common law, civil law, Islamic law, socialist law and Indigenous legal systems.
“I’m impressed by the level of engagement by both inside and outside students. It’s quite remarkable,” said Michael Young, professor of justice studies and director of the School of Humanitarian Studies at Royal Roads.
“The conversations are rich. People aren’t afraid to laugh, there’s a good rapport. People are excited and they’re charged when the class is over. They’re ready for more.”
The Inside Out program came out of Temple University in Philadelphia and originated as a means of bringing together campus-based college students with incarcerated students to offer a transformative learning experience across social barriers.
There are more than 100 education institutions that have sponsored similar courses around the world since the program began 20 years ago.
In B.C., Royal Roads is one of three post-secondary institutions that take part in the Inside Out Program.
The program is also offered through Vancouver Island University and the Nanaimo Correctional Centre, and at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village in Harrison Mills.
Young hopes the program will help break down the stigma and barriers that emerge between people who are incarcerated and those who are not.
“We have the outside students who are bound to work somewhere in the justice sector or somewhere where there’s going to be contact with groups who are disadvantaged or marginalized. We think this will give them a better understanding of how to meet people where they are and to take them for who they are,” he said.
“For inside students, we’re hoping that they get to see that they have the capacity to do more than they thought they could do. Even if they decide never go to university, they know they have the ability to learn.”
Inside students, who range in age from 20 to 50, have become a wealth of knowledge for outside students as well.
“They [inside students] thought more critically of our current justice system. They find flaws that some people might not see. It’s a completely different perspective. They had a different history, different background that they bring to the table,” Collin said.
“It helps break down the barriers of preconceptions that some people might have about incarcerated individuals … It prevents us from worrying or thinking too much about what people have done in the past and just see them as fellow academics. We’re all there on equal terms.”
Twenty-two-year-old Brie heard about the program from Young while attending university. Having worked in parole in the past, Brie wanted to see things from a different perspective.
“It was actually eye opening. A lot of the guys are knowledgeable, they’re engaged, they do all their readings and they’re very open-minded,” she said, adding it’s an experience she would participate in again.
“They’re really easy to work with. I feel like I’m learning a lot more than just class content, but I’m also learning about different world views.”