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May 31, 2019

Breaking Barriers

Avila University students spent a recent evening at a seldom-visited destination: Lansing Correctional Facility.

The trip served as a supplemental component of the Restorative Relationships course, which emphasizes social justice issues related to children, family, and the community at large, with a look at the school to prison pipeline. An interdisciplinary studies course co-taught by Bradley Poos, Ph.D., assistant professor of education and Regina Staves, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, the former said the goal of the trip was to shift students’ perceptions.

I can see that people can change and we’re not just the choices we made in the past. It takes time and understanding; people sometimes just need to be heard. - Breland Edmond, junior

“Overall, the breaking down of stereotypes across the board was transformational,” Poos said. “Especially in the sense that it’s another narrative you aren’t normally exposed to; it’s a narrative that centers on them being human and not just criminals.”

The class met with residents who nearly unanimously were serving long periods of time in prison in the maximum security unit. However, the group itself is voluntary, and Staves said the inmates who participated were “there because they want to learn.” That desire to learn and adjust made some students reconsider the opinions they held of the inmates going into the visit.

“One of the sayings I heard growing up was ‘a leopard can’t change its spots’ meaning people are going to be who they are,” said Breland Edmond, a psychology major junior with a focus on mental health. “But after going into this and seeing these people, I can see that people can change and we’re not just the choices we made in the past. It takes time and understanding; people sometimes just need to be heard. It’s difficult because once you’re in prison, you’re not really heard because people think you’re just a criminal and they don’t need to listen to you. Sometimes we just need to stop judging people so harshly on their past.”

Partnering with the Center for Conflict Resolution – a local non-profit organization working toward restorative justice and reconciliation – the professors took 11 students to Lansing to be part of a restorative circle organized by the prison. The students intentionally sat amongst the residents in order to fully participate, Staves explained.

“For students who are criminology and psychology majors and who are looking to work with at-risk groups, this was an opportunity for them to see what it was like on the inside for the first time,” she said.

In the wake of the visit, the professors said several students had begun the application process to volunteer at Lansing in the future. Both professors said they look forward to taking future sections of the course to the prison because the objectives of the course meet the Avila mission.

“We are trying to help develop right relationships in the classroom, but also in the community, wherever that community is,” Staves said. “I felt this was very important and that it is something mission-driven.”

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