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‘Jail class’: College students, inmates learning together

March 14, 2020 GMT
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Geneva College student Breland Brown, right, and Sidney Freshwater, second from right, wait to sign in with their classmates at the Beaver County Jail before they take a class with inmates on Feb. 24, 2020 in Aliquippa, Pa. Every Monday six inmates and 10 Geneva College students sit together at tables and learn about the criminal justice system. (Lucy Schaly/Beaver County Times via AP)
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Geneva College student Breland Brown, right, and Sidney Freshwater, second from right, wait to sign in with their classmates at the Beaver County Jail before they take a class with inmates on Feb. 24, 2020 in Aliquippa, Pa. Every Monday six inmates and 10 Geneva College students sit together at tables and learn about the criminal justice system. (Lucy Schaly/Beaver County Times via AP)

ALIQUIPPA, Pa. (AP) — Ten college students stand in a corridor with pockets empty, a notebook in hand and photo ID at the ready.

No sharp objects?

Check.

Cellphone left in the car?

Check.

These folks know the routine; they go through it each week.

Past the metal detectors and through a cold door, the students line up.

Single-file, they walk through another set of doors and into a conference room.

The 10 sit at rectangular tables, every other seat filled as they wait for a few more to join them.

Moments later, six men, head-to-toe in green uniforms enter the conference room.

Textbooks and notebooks tucked under their arms, the men file into the empty seats between the other students, ready to learn.

The topic? The criminal justice system.

Every Monday from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., six inmates and 10 Geneva College students sit together at tables and learn about the criminal justice system.

The class — Sociology 242: Incarceration and Re-entry — is taught by Beaver County Jail Chaplain Denny “Chap” Ugoletti and Geneva College sociology professor Brad Frey at the jail, where they tackle the topic of mass incarceration.

“Mass incarceration is one of the critical social problems of our time,” Frey said.

The class, typically referred to as “the jail class,” aims to break down barriers by connecting inmates with Geneva criminal justice students.

“So many of our students are going to work in some dimension of social services,” Frey said. This class, Frey hopes, will charge those students to “change the system.”

“Getting to meet people who are incarcerated will help our students imagine a better way to respond to crime,” he said.

Beaver County Jail Warden Bill Schouppe said the experience is “invaluable” for students.

“It’s an opportunity to sit and talk to inmates before they get into the field. It puts students ahead,” he said.

A goal of three-credit, one-semester class is invoke change. According to the class syllabus, the course “rests on the belief that individuals who learn to see beyond the simplistic assumptions that dominate public opinion on crime and incarceration will help by becoming agents of change.”

College students earn credits toward graduation, and inmates receive a certificate for completing a college-level course and a letter from Geneva College.

Inmates considered for the class must be nonviolent offenders and write an essay describing why they want to attend the class. If an inmate gets into trouble while incarcerated, they cannot attend the class.

Schouppe said since the class started 14 years ago, it’s gone “really well.”

“We’ve never had any problems,” he said.

“The jail class”

Veryl Long takes pride in his studies. It’s his second time taking the jail class.

He originally wanted to take the class because he thought it’d be a good way to socialize and talk with folks from outside the jail walls. He didn’t realize how much confidence he’d gain in the process.

“This class, it’s giving me life,” he said. “It gives me a sense of self-worth. I feel important again.”

Long, 30, of Pittsburgh, earns good grades in the class. He spends hours each day reading and reflecting on what he learned the week before.

“I don’t waste my time in jail,” Long said. “I’ve got readings and summaries to write at night.”

In fact, many of the inmates score equally or better than Geneva students on some of the papers and tests.

“The first test is always the eye-opener,” said Schouppe. “The public perception is they think (inmates) are dumb. But they’re not dumb, they just got caught. These guys aren’t here because they’re dumb.”

The class is set up like any other college-level class. Inmates and Geneva students do the same readings, write the same papers and take the same exams.

“It’s a regular class,” Schouppe said.

Ernest Thornton, 43, of Beaver Falls, also is enrolled in the class. He has been in and out of the prison system for years, and appreciates that the class is honest about the effects of mass incarceration.

“I like that they’re teaching the facts and not holding anything back,” Thornton said. “This class makes you think a lot about things you wouldn’t normally think about.”

The price of incarceration

According to the 2008 Center for Economic and Policy Research, federal, state and local governments spent around $75 billion on corrections, with the large majority on incarceration.

“So many big corporations are profiting off of this,” Thornton said.

Geneva jail class students share similar sentiments, noting that some offenses — such as drugs — rehabilitation should be the goal, not punitive action.

“The money we spend on housing inmates, feeding them and throwing them back into the system could be spent on more rehabilitation systems,” said Kennedy Burgreen, a 22-year-old biblical studies major at Geneva.

Breland Brown, a 20-year-old criminal justice and student ministry double major, said, “We want to lower recidivism rates. We want them to be able to go back into their communities. And yet, the incarceration rate is still so high.

“We have these terms, like rehabilitation and restorative justice, but why am I not hearing about these in the world?” Brown said. “Why is restorative justice just a textbook term?”

While national crime rates — both violent and nonviolent — have significantly decreased within the last 20 years, Ugoletti said incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the last several decades.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world with more than 2.1 million inmates, according to World Prison Brief. The second largest country is China, with 1.7 million inmates.

According to the Sentencing Project, prison populations grew nearly 700 percent between 1972 and 2009.

“We incarcerate more people by number and percentage than any other country,” Frey said.

Race and incarceration

A Human Rights Watch analysis showed that although drug use among people of color and whites is similar, African Americans are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than Caucasians.

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 3.4 percent of African Americans had an illicit drug use disorder compared to 3 percent of white people. The results also showed past month illicit drug use at 13.7 percent among African Americans compared to 12 percent of whites.

In that survey, African Americans reported a significantly lower lifetime use of cocaine — both powder and crack cocaine — at 8.5 percent than whites at 17.6 percent and Hispanics at 11.1 percent.

Of the nearly 250 inmates in the jail, Schouppe said most are there for nonviolent offenses.

“We’re not violent. We aren’t harden criminals,” Long said of his fellow classmates and many others in the jail. “Many are here for addiction, mental illness. People fighting to get out of poverty.”

Hitting home

For Brown, discussing incarceration during the class hits deeper. Her father is incarcerated in California for a crime she says he did not commit.

“He was wrongfully accused and imprisoned. It’s a constant battle every day,” she said.

She said sometimes topics in the class are triggers for her, because she knows her dad is in a similar position as the men in her class.

“Our family has seen this and it’s tearing us apart, and other families are being torn apart, too,” Brown said.

Brown added she wants to be a criminal defense lawyer, and the jail class has solidified that goal.

“Something that really opened my eyes, even though I’m living it, is to really hear that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we fight, we always have to work hard to be heard and to be understood,” she said. “But doing advocacy work, bringing a voice to people who don’t have this voice ... that’s what we have to do.”

For Burgreen, it’s her first experience in a jail setting.

She decided to take the class because she wanted to study criminal justice and learn about it firsthand from inmates. She said the trust between the Geneva and jail students allows for authentic conversation.

“I can ask them pretty bold questions,” Burgreen said. “When students ask them questions, we get caught up in their stories. It creates a really cool bond and trust that leaves it open for us to ask really vulnerable questions.”

For inmates, the class empowers them.

“Days pass in jail and you feel like a number,” Long said. “In this class, I feel like a citizen again.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2Q1iSiU

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Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/