by Kayla Sosa
The Inside Out Prison Exchange Program brings Grand Valley State University criminal justice students to the Michigan Reformatory, a high-security men’s prison in Ionia. The course, a criminology class led by Dr. Jacquelynn Doyon-Martin, is comprised of students and inmates who come together to bond over the course of 15 weeks. For the students, it is one of the most unique classes in their college career.
“[The course] looks critically at courts, corrections and policing in the United States,” Doyon-Martin explained.
The GVSU program is one piece of an international Inside Out Program that operates at colleges and universities around the globe. Classes can vary in any topic or major, but at GVSU, the focus is criminal justice.
Ashlee Duplessis took the course before graduating in 2015. She said that on the first day of class they started with a tour of the prison.
“The class makes you realize that you have a certain view of inmates based on what you see in the media, based on what you see in a textbook. And then you get to the class and you realize, ‘Yeah they made some sort of mistake, but they still have views, they still have opinions, they’re still people.’
“[We got an] idea of where they’re eating and sleeping, where their rec center was, their gym, what the yard looked like,” Duplessis said. “So that helped to give a perspective of where these people were coming from and what they get to see in their everyday life.”
Upon seeing the living conditions of the prisoners, Duplessis felt a lot of different emotions.
“The day that we went and saw the prison, they were on a heat wave advisory,” she said. “People were miserable, which in 90-something degree heat, I could see. You just don’t really understand what the living conditions are like until you see it.”
Like every college class, the first day involved a few icebreakers to get the students acquainted with one another.
“Everyone was a little nervous,” Duplessis smiled. “We all sat in a circle, and it was every other — so you’d have an inmate on either side of you, and I just think that helped facilitate a better discussion. You aren’t having the outside students all crowded together, staring at the inside students — it was a big, immersive circle.”
Certainly, Duplessis said she was humbled by the experience.
“Our objective is to make students uncomfortable,” Doyon-Martin expressed. “What I think a lot of the outside, or the college students, don’t realize is that the inside students are just as nervous that first day. We have all these stereotypes that prisoners are hard and unfeeling, and I can promise you they are just as nervous and just as intimidated.”
Doyon-Martin goes on to describe how her inside students (prisoners) are nervous about what her outside students (GVSU students) will think of them.
“‘They’re going to think we’re horrible people, they’re going to think we’re unintelligent.’ It brings together two nervous, uncomfortable populations to have, as Ashlee described, a conversation and hear opinions and viewpoints, which turn into amazing discussions.”
Before taking the Inside Out class, Duplessis was convinced she wanted to be a prosecutor and “put bad people away.” After interacting with inmates and hearing the personal side of the criminal justice system, she decided to become a defense attorney.
“There were stereotypes in my head that I didn’t even realize I was really holding until I got to the class and was like, “I do feel that way, but why?’” Duplessis reflected. “The class makes you realize that you have a certain view of inmates based on what you see in the media, based on what you see in a textbook. You get to the class, and you realize, ‘Yeah they made a mistake, but they still have views, they still have opinions, they’re still people.’”
After graduating, Duplessis went to law school at Michigan State Univiersity. She graduated last year and now runs her own law firm, Duplessis Law, in Royal Oak, MI.
“I just want to make sure people are being properly represented,” she said. “Every single person deserves a defense, and my current goal right now is to continue learning and growing in the field.”
Doyon-Martin said she wants people to see past stereotypes and think about prisoners as contributing members of our society.
“The whole objective is to remind ourselves that they are still a part of the community. We have done a really good job creating a barrier between the community and incarcerated populations, and the vast majority of prisoners are going to end up back in the community … I think we’re starting to recognize as a community, who do we want coming back? We want stable citizens, we want rehabilitated citizens, we want citizens who have skills that can be put into the workforce.”
Students who wish to join the Inside Out program at GVSU must be a criminal justice major or minor, and would have to apply and go through an interview process. The class takes place once a year in the fall. To learn more, visit gvsu.edu.