Examining criminology from an inside-out perspective
Radford University Criminal Justice Professors Riane Bolin and Egan Green are teaching a class in a nontraditional setting: inside a jail.
The unconventional classroom setting came about from an idea that Bolin and Nicole Hendrix, also a professor of Criminal Justice, had a few years ago.
The idea led Bolin and Hendrix to take a week-long Inside-Out training seminar in West Virginia, where not only was the curriculum and the program itself discussed, but also the rules of engaging with inmates and how to manage the prison setting.
As part of the training, traditional students are referred to as outside students and inmates are referred to as inside students.
“Usually, both sides are exceptionally nervous when they first meet,” Bolin said. “They aren’t sure what to expect. They’re intimidated by the other group. Part of the inside-out philosophy is that you want to immediately get them into an icebreaker activity. It’s a fascinating experience going from all the tension to being essentially in a normal classroom.”
This year, Bolin is working with Professor of Criminal Justice Egan Green to teach the inside out course at the New River Valley Regional Jail featuring nine outside students and 10 inside students. The course is a criminology class that explains the theories of why people commit crimes.
"The jail has been incredibly cooperative and supportive since I first pitched the idea to Superintendent Gregory Winston in the Fall 2017," Bolin said. "Superintendent Winston is always looking for programs to benefit the inmate population.
"As an adjunct faculty member in our department, Superintendent Winston was particularly excited about how the program would benefit not only the inside students, but the outside students as well," Bolin continued. "The jail has made sure to provide us with everything that we need, including a suitable space for the class as well as the materials that we need to facilitate the course and even purchased the textbooks for the inside students this semester."
The inside students do not have prior knowledge of criminal theories, Green said.
“We have to go over the basics with them,” Green continued. “We will spend a few weeks on that. Then we start looking at specific people – high profile deviants – and what Riane and I will do is give them biographical information.”
All students then have to find what criminal theory explains the actions by pointing to specific events in the individual’s life.
At the end of the course, outside students have to pick their own criminal, find the biographical information and discuss theories that explain why that individual turned to crime. Inside students have two options for the assignment: choose a self-reflection on the events in their life or pick somebody they know.
“The biggest thing for me in doing this class is that a lot of times our criminal justice students come in with preconceived notions about who is a criminal,” Bolin said. “This class shows them that a lot of times there are extenuating circumstances that led the individual to where they are today - all it takes is a choice.”
Bolin said many of the inside students had prior bad experiences with education, and either dropped out early or did poorly.
“I really just want them to have an opportunity to voice their opinions,” Bolin said. “This gives them an opportunity to express their opinions on issues and talk about their stories in a non-threatening environment.
“They also teach our students things that we are unable to teach them,” Bolin continued. “We can talk about theories and why people go to prison, but until they hear it from someone inside, it doesn’t fully connect.”
So far, Bolin said, the interactions between the inside and outside students are progressing well, with integrated discussions frequently occurring between the inside and outside students.
“The inside students in particular seem very interested and intrigued with the different criminological theories,” Bolin said. “I am looking forward to hearing which theories they choose to apply to the various deviants.”