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In ‘Learning Behind Bars’, Leiden students study with inmates

Prison and student life are worlds apart. But in the Learning Behind Bars project, Leiden criminology students get the chance to study inside prison walls with people incarcerated there.

Jennifer Doekhie and Joni Reef, both Criminology lecturers, are the driving forces behind the Learning Behind Bars project. They received a Comenius grant (a grant for educational innovation), a major accolade for the form of education they have been working on for ten years. They tell us how they came up with this idea and why this kind of practice-based education is so important, especially for academics.

‘We first heard about prison education about a decade ago. It’s a form of community-engaged learning in which academia and society seek each other out. That was at a symposium in the United States. They have been doing this for 30 years there, with valuable results. Their experience inspired us to seek training in Canada for this type of education’, Doekhie recalls.

‘They dare to re-enter society as full citizens.’

Through a different lens

The idea is quite simple: interested third-year students can apply for the subject Criminology in Prison. The same thing happens in prison: inmates can apply for this subject. If they complete it successfully, they receive a certificate. But the idea behind it is more important: getting to know each other and learning about another person’s norms and values. Strengthening participants’ inner development goals, they call it. It is a key principle of the teaching Reef and Doekhie deliver. Students, whether inside or outside prison walls, have to open up to each other.

Reef: ‘We know from the literature that experiential learning is important for researchers and policymakers, learning to see things from other people’s perspectives. If you can do this, and you know the people and bottlenecks in the field, you can conceive of research questions that really matter and you can design policy much more effectively. On the flip side, inmates who take such a university course and are valued as full human beings for it seem to get a huge boost in self-confidence. The subject also gives them an opportunity to view things through the lens of prosecutors and judges for the first time. This has a positive impact on their resocialisation process. They dare to re-enter society as full citizens.’

Jennifer Doekhie and Joni Reef

Eliminating prejudices

Before the course begins, all participants fill in a questionnaire about what they expect to learn. And, as Reef explains: ‘Prejudices abound in both groups. The students expect to meet men who look big and dangerous [so far, the project has been carried out in men’s prisons, Ed.] and with whom it is practically impossible to have a conversation. The ‘inner students’ (as the incarcerated participants are called) expect to meet girls who are all into hockey, wear pearl necklaces and mainly drink beer on their parents’ dime.’

Those perceptions are turned on their head from the very first meeting, Doekhie explains. ‘We don’t ask questions about crimes or punishment; instead, we start with a topic like, “What’s your favourite movie?” Then suddenly it turns out that there’s a lot to talk about because they find common ground: “they” are actually just like “us”. More than once during the first round of feedback, we’ve heard the university students say about the inner students: “they’re just like ordinary people”. I have to laugh at that in a way, but at the same time there’s something sad about it.’

Much of the benefit of Learning Behind Bars lies in such realisations: prejudices are eliminated, and people learn to see each other as human beings. ‘I think it’s a shortcoming that at our university, we train people to be judges or lawyers who may never have spoken to someone from another social class.’ Reef continues: ‘In medicine, there’s a lot of focus on the patient experience. As a doctor-to-be, you learn to put yourself in your patient’s shoes so you can pay closer attention to the person behind the patient. This is virtually absent in law school. There is an increasing focus on it, though, and that is desperately needed.’

The full article can be read in the 2023 October issue of the Leidraad alumni magazine (in Dutch, p. 28-30).

Text: Nienke Ledegang
Images: istock, Eelkje Colmjon

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