THIBODAUX, La. — Nicholls State University and the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office recently celebrated the inaugural closing ceremony of a unique, transformative learning experience that puts university students in a new classroom setting with incarcerated students to study social issues.
The Nicholls Inside Out Program is the first of its kind in Louisiana. The course paired 10 Nicholls students, or Outside students, with 10 inmates, or Inside students. The students met once a week at the Lafourche Parish Correctional Complex to discuss a wide range of topics centered around criminal justice. All students were responsible for the same readings and an equal amount of writing.
Kristen Callais, instructor of sociology and program facilitator first approached Sheriff Craig Webre about the program three years ago when she learned that Louisiana, known for having the highest rate of incarceration in the world, was one of the few states without Inside Out. She received training and certification in 2019 from the international Inside Out Prison Exchange Instructor Training Institute held at Lewis University and Stateville Maximum Security Prison. The course was offered for the first time this Spring.
“I’m so incredibly proud of this group,” Callais said. “I’m confident that through this process they have done more than just learn facts. They have broken through barriers both physically and socially and have truly become some of the most creative thinkers that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching.”
Callais said the program’s academic focus is to broaden and deepen the students’ knowledge of the criminal justice system. The students adjusted to an online educational format during the spread of COVID-19 and, for their final project, pieced together over 50 videos filmed from 12 different locations to create an awareness campaign that humanizes those involved in the criminal justice system and advocates for prison reform.
“I expected an interesting experience, a unique educational opportunity, but I wasn’t thinking about the bigger picture. By the end, not only did I not feel awkward anymore, but I felt like I handmade a connection. Many have dreams similar to mine,” said Zachary Smith, a senior psychology major from Schriever. “We tackled heavy stuff, and we didn’t always agree on everything. Therein lies a huge strength of the class. It was real. It was not a few pages of a textbook, it was not a professor or any other repository of information on the outside. It was not television, film or media. It was an organic experience or knowledge that transformed me, and I think transformed many of my classmates as well.”
Nicholls students applied to take part in the program and were interviewed and by a selection committee. Inside students were selected by the correctional complex programming staff based on the length of sentence, diversity, and good behavior.
During the closing ceremony held May 7 students heard from U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, Nicholls President Dr. Jay Clune, Lafourche District Attorney Kristine Russell and Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre.
“The decision to partner with Nicholls State University on this project was an easy one because it complements the mission and vision of the Lafourche Parish Correctional Complex,” said Sheriff Webre. “The dynamics of humanity are far too complex to be defined by the worst decision that a person makes in the worst moment of the worst day of his or her life. In listening to the testimonies of the program participants, it was rewarding to hear how the program successfully brought together two groups of people that would have likely never had those discussions otherwise.”
In an effort to protect all students and create an equal playing field, Callais and the students referred to each other using only first names.
Damien, an inside student, said he expected to be judged by his status as a black man and a felon and that scared him. But that was not how he was treated.
“The most powerful aspect of the Inside Out Program lies in its ability to give hope to the ones society dubs as hopeless,” he said. “Hope can give one the ability to overcome mountains of adversity. I will carry this hope with me as I pioneer my way through a different way of living.”
For more information visit www.nicholls.edu/social-sciences/insideout.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 26, 2020
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