Jac Ewasyshyn said she was incredibly intimidated the first time she saw the housing unit at Saginaw Regional Correctional Facility. Some of the men are serving life sentences, but preconceived perspectives shifted for the Central Michigan University senior the moment she interacted with one of them.
Ewasyshyn saw him as a person and not as a criminal.
"We can't make criminal behavior go away overnight, but you can't fix the problem until you understand it," said Ewasyshyn, a psychology major from Harrison Township, Michigan.
Ewasyshyn and her 14 fellow honors students are taking an eight-week service-learning and conflict resolution class alongside men who are incarcerated in the Freeland, Michigan, prison. CMU communication professors Shelly Hinck and Ed Hinck co-teach the course that studies how communities create, sustain and transform conceptions of topics such as crime, guilt, innocence and justice from a communications perspective.
"When you give students the opportunity to interact with the individuals that the organization you're working with is serving, it really has the potential to be transformative," said Shelly Hinck. "The students and the men who are incarcerated both are learning this material together. They're engaging as co-learners in the process."
In addition to visiting the correctional facility, CMU students attend on-campus class sessions to begin deconstructing their understanding of what a prison is (there to punish), who is housed in the prison (stereotypes of what it means to be a prisoner) and the perceived fairness of our justice system. They read articles about the prison industrial complex, the role of race in the criminal justice systems and the need for educational programming that rehabilitates rather than punishes.
"While the conflict resolution class is important in helping the men who are incarcerated address and think about their conflict skills, the on-campus class is just as important for our students because it serves as a way to understand the experience in the prison," Shelly Hinck said.
The Hincks have worked with four correctional facilities in Michigan and one in Kansas since 1996 to engage undergraduate and graduate students in the scholarship of service learning. Through these collaborative efforts, more than 240 students have served 277 inmates over the course of 10 different classes.
When conflict management becomes contagious
Ed Hinck said in some ways, the academic portion of the class he is responsible for this semester is like a deconstruction of who is incarcerated. Working with men serving life sentences is important because they generally are the Department of Corrections' lowest priority for programming. He said learning about conflict resolution also can lead to inmates serving shorter sentences.
"By helping to teach men in prison about conflict resolution and mentorship, we’re not just putting a Band-Aid on the problem, we're actually taking tiny steps to help solve it."
Andrea Buckley, Saginaw senior
"The lifers, who don't want the younger men to make the same mistakes that they made, are trying to have a positive influence on the younger inmates," he said. "They are very much interested in conflict management skills to hopefully teach other inmates about conflict management to help them when they get out."
This is the second time the Hincks have facilitated the service-learning partnership between the CMU Honors Program and the Saginaw Regional Correctional Facility. Students Andrea Buckley and Dyese Matthews both enrolled in the first offering and now are serving as course teaching assistants to help lead and mentor the honors students as well as the men who are incarcerated.
"I'm here because of the mentors and influences in my life, and I hope to be a positive influence in the lives of people who need encouragement," said Buckley, a senior from Saginaw, Michigan, majoring in social work. "By helping to teach men in prison about conflict resolution and mentorship, we're not just putting a Band-Aid on the problem, we're actually taking tiny steps to help solve it."
Matthews, a junior from Chicago, Illinois, said she is encouraged to see the transformation of the CMU students when they realize the impact this experience is having on the men in the correctional facility and themselves.
"I remember what it was like last year, so it's interesting to see the students' reactions when they go to the prison for the first time," said Matthews, a fashion merchandising and design major. "Then, after going to the prison for a second time, they already are seeing the work that can be done to improve the lives of the men in prison and to address the problems that lead people to commit crimes."