For many prisoners, education can be a key component of building a better life as well as making jail a less negative experience. Yet education opportunities have been substantially cut back in Canadian prisons and are now limited to high school completion and occasional introductory trades programs.
A few Canadian organizations have not given up on efforts to help prisoners learn. One of these is the Walls to Bridges Program. Walls to Bridges provides university courses for prisoners at various institutions across Canada, even though university education is no longer supported by Correctional Services Canada. These courses are now sponsored by nine different universities, though this post focuses on courses at the Grand Valley Institute for Women, sponsored by the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. Importantly, these classes also include non-incarcerated students. More information on the Walls to Bridges program, including descriptions, evaluations and other accounts, is available on their website.
Walls to Bridges has published a number of studies and reports on their programs, many of which include powerful testimonials from the women participating as to the positive effect of these programs. This post is drawn from the account of one prisoner – Nyki Kish. In what follows, Nyki Kish’s own words are in italics. Other sections are reworded to condense the account into the space available.
The challenge of studying in prison
“At the time I was introduced to the Inside-Out program [Inside-Out was the former name, from 2011 to 2014, of what is now Walls to Bridges], I was being held in a maximum security wing of the Grand Valley Institution for Women, a sentence stipulation anyone with a life sentence must endure. On the pod, we were locked in cells for 14.5 hours daily. We were often double bunked. When I first arrived, I remember my first impression: How could anyone exist for two years in such a small, uncomfortable space? What meaningful experience could one even craft from such an experience?”
“I quickly hoped that education could be that time’s saving grace. But from a resource and opportunity standpoint, the max offers less than little.” Only correspondence courses are available and since most of these are online, they cannot be pursued because prisoners have no internet access, nor is there any financial support to take courses. Even finding a space to study is very difficult because of various controls on prisoners. “…in a cell there are no computers, no working space, and only what study supplies we can purchase through the canteen, limited to papers, pens and erasers.”
Further, many prisoners in the max wing have mental health issues, leading to disruption and violence, making it “one of the most hostile, unstable places a person could study in. Still, when Inside-Out was being introduced, the organizers were quite careful in pushing for the inclusion of max women, and included we were. I completed the first four courses that were offered while imprisoned in the max – the most meaningful experience I had during my imprisonment in max.”
“Every class takes place with university students who are both imprisoned and not imprisoned. A supportive rather than competitive tone is encouraged, and equality in voice is promoted.” The class operates as a circle or in small groups to promote dialogue and acceptance of all views.
“The courses are held in the medium-security compound, which means that in order to attend I had to be taken…by guards, frisk-searched… and under constant supervision of prison staff… However the course included both prisoners and other students from the outside, so “in that setting and only in that setting there was no way to identify me as a maximum security prisoner… I remember feeling instantly more human than I had since being convicted… I realized how compromised my social skills had become… I was no longer, by that time, accustomed to being spoken to with respect… or anywhere I could express my opinions unpenalized.”
The value of circles
“…there is a healing quality to the circle setting that Inside-Out embraces. …In class circles I felt safe to think and share and interact… I began to find something I had lost in the trauma of experiencing the penal system: my voice. …listening and being listened to within a group of people, and being encouraged to disagree and challenge ideas, counteracted the negative impacts of imprisonment in the max. Being this way during class reminded me of the self I developed before being imprisoned… and slowly but surely I regained confidence, vitality and drive that I was not aware I had lost. I finished my first Inside-Out class feeling like I had found liberation from within prison walls.”
Yet even in this setting, issues of how the program might appear to some of the public remained important. “Indeed, public perception is the guise under which we as an imprisoned population are denied even the most basic human rights and dignities… I do not dispute that under our existing system programs like Inside-Out are indeed a privilege; I dispute that they ought to be.”
“The Inside-Out program continues to be one of the only substantial opportunities available to women imprisoned at GVIW (Grand Valley Institution for Women), let alone the max [unit], and it is only available because of the prolonged determination of outside forces… [it] will continue to get nothing but praise from me, but in praising it I will not let the system within which it exists be overshadowed… In sharing my experience I hope readers are imbued with the importance of programs like Inside-Out within these systems, if these systems must exist.”
This material is excerpted with the permission of The Walls to Bridges program from an account by Nyki Kish, entitled “Jail the Body, Free the Mind“. Her account is part of a chapter called “Experiencing the Inside-Out Program in a Maximum Security Prison”. The full chapter is available here. It is part of a book called “Criminalizing Women: Gender and (In)Justice in Neoliberal Times”, 2nd Edition, edited by Gillian Balfour and Elizabeth Comack. Halifax: Fernwood Publications. The full book is available at https://fernwoodpublishing.ca/book/criminalizing-women1