Lesley Stevenson '16 | November 30, 2018
“A typical class goes like this: Students greet each other, get their name tags (first names only), and sit in a circle, every insider next to an outsider.”
Those aren’t the blunt kind of labels you’d expect to hear in a course about social justice, in which empathy, shared experiences and common human dignity typically underscore, well, everything — but here, it makes perfect sense. As Ed Kelly describes it, the “outsiders” are Notre Dame students enrolled in CSC 33997, Rethinking Crime and Justice. The “insiders” are men incarcerated at Westville Correctional Facility, 45 miles southwest of South Bend.
“The preconceived notions that each group brings to the initial meeting evaporate pretty quickly, as the students learn that they’re dealing with other good human beings like themselves,” Kelly says. He notes that the labels serve as shorthand and that they, too, quickly lose their meaning.
Senior Mackenzie Nolan recalls security checkpoints, barriers and intense anxiety on her first visit to Westville. “Towards the end of the course, the line between the inside and outside students was blurred; we had become one class and had forged friendships based on trust,” she says. Her anxiety slipped away with the group’s very first icebreaker.
Since 2012, Kelly, an adjunct faculty member in the University Writing Program, has co-taught the course with Susan Sharpe, the restorative justice advisor at the Center for Social Concerns, which backs the course. The format hasn’t changed much: Kelly and Sharpe present a topic related to incarceration and prison reform to the class of 32, facilitate small-group discussions and talk it out in groups of 16 before regrouping as a whole class again.
“I was blown away by the kindness and unique personality and perspective each student brought to class every week,” says junior Lily Merrigan, a student in the Fall 2018 course. “. . .We were able to engage in deep conversation about our readings, how we saw the criminal justice system changing positively in the future, and what our role might be in that process of change, both from the inside and outside.”
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