Christine Shimrock kept trying to reconcile theory with reality, but they didn’t always line up. As a graduate student in the criminal justice program, Shimrock got a solid theoretical picture of the justice system. But as a chaplain at the Lebanon Correctional Institution near Lebanon, Ohio, she found her perceptions could be quite different.
So early in her coursework, the 2006 graduate took her concerns to assistant professor of criminal justice Jeff Monroe. Several years of planning ensued, and this spring the pair launched Inside Out: Prison Exchange Program, a class held inside the Lebanon facility that brings together 10 Xavier undergraduate students and 10 inmates to explore issues of social justice. Shimrock taught the class, which is based on a program started at Temple University in 1997.
The immediate goal is to create better understanding between future police and judges and the inmates. The long-term goal is to translate that understanding to the street.
“You have to have a textbook foundation, then there’s a human aspect, and that’s where this class comes in,” Shimrock says. “Here are the human beings we actually need to have discussions with. We as a public unfortunately like black and white. This really introduces gray in a really productive way.”
In all, 19 University students applied and interviewed to be part of the class. “I was looking for students I thought would be open to new ideas but who were grounded in their own ideas,” Monroe says. “Christine wanted a mix of ideas and backgrounds—as many different ideas as we could get on the table.”
A similar interview process took place at Lebanon. At the insistence of prison officials, the inmates were chosen from the honors camp, a section of the prison reserved for those convicted of lesser crimes or those who have worked to gain minimum-security ratings, Shimrock says. In general, these are individuals with two years or less remaining on their sentences.
“The inmate group was diverse also in terms of crimes they committed,” Monroe says. “We did make certain there were no sex offenders. And we don’t allow students to establish relationships beyond the classroom.”
As might be expected, the class got off to a tentative start. “The first class together, everyone was paralyzed with discomfort,” Shimrock says. “Neither group knew what to expect.”
But the group ultimately clicked and tackled some tough topics, such as the purpose of prisons, why people commit crimes, domestic violence and victims’ issues. The goal, Shimrock says, was not to reach a conclusion, but to air a variety of opinions.
Monroe says greater understanding is an important quality for those going into criminal jusrtice work. “Offenders might make decisions different than you do,” he says. “But they have many similar core concerns. We don’t want students to leave Xavier thinking there’s an‘us-and-them’ mentality.”
Shimrock says the class is valuable for all involved. “It puts a face to crime,” she says. “The outside students can now look under the numbers and see people. And the inside students have also been shown some of their own responsibility in where they are.”
The final class project, presented to prison officials at a closing ceremony in May, included some of the class goals in document form, outlining a bridge between programming at the correctional facility and programming outside.
In spite of the logistical problems associated with launching a class such as this, both Shimrock and Monroe were pleased with the initial semester. The course will be offered again in spring 2008. Monroe, who attended Temple and was aware of the program there, says it’s a natural fit for Xavier.
“Although it had never been pitched this way, it really exemplified the Jesuit mission, teaching students about social justice,” he says. “Some students say they really see things differently now, and by seeing things differently, they’ll be better equipped when they walk into the field.”