Capilano Students to Study as Peers Alongside Prisoners

Capilano students will have to leave prejudices at the door as they attend classes at Fraser Valley Institution for women

Megan Amato // Associate News Editor

This September, Capilano University will be the first institution in British Columbia to participate in the Walls to Bridges program. Capilano instructor, Kirsten McIlveen, will teach a Geography level-100 course told through a Carceral Lens at the Fraser Valley Institution to a mix of eight incarcerated and eight Capilano students. 

The Walls to Bridges program evolved from the U.S. Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in 2014, led by Shoshana Pollack out of Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener Ontario, and worked with the Grand Valley Institution for Women to offer university for-credit classes with “inside” and “outside” students studying together as peers. Once the program gained momentum, incarcerated students formed a Collective that would guide the way the program is run, and how future instructors are trained. 

“Academics, potential instructors, are trained in the pedagogy,” explained Kirsten McIlveen, a Geography and Woman and Gender Studies instructor at Capilano University. “The training is significant, there is an educational collective made of prisoners and alumni of Walls to Bridges. They make the decisions about what courses are offered, who the academics are, who is allowed in for the training. It keeps the decision making very grounded amongst the prisoners.”  

McIlveen—who has twenty-five years of experience working with incarcerated folk in women’s prisons in the lower mainland— stated that the program “turns hierarchies on their head because you have academics coming in and it’s the prisoners that take the lead and do the training.” Through this program, students will learn to confront their own prejudices by studying as peers alongside those who have been incarcerated. All this while gaining experiential knowledge about both the criminal justice and prison systems in BC from the position of oppression and marginalization— knowledge that McIlveen suggests would be hard to attain anywhere else.

Both students from Capilano University and from Fraser Valley have been carefully selected by McIlveen. Each applicant was asked to submit a statement of interest, which was followed by an interview to ensure the values and intent of the students matched those of the program. The result is a mix of students with a diverse range of backgrounds in education and lived experiences. “There is one student from maximum security, a few from the minimum and the rest of the medium,” McIlveen said, regarding the diversity of incarcerated students in particular. “[It’s] significant that we are allowed to mix those securities because normally [it’s] forbidden.” 

The classroom setup will be unlike anything Capilano students are likely to be familiar with. Using a circle pedagogy, instructors will facilitate discussions between students that is relevant to both the course content and life experiences. For those on the inside, Capilano is making the course accessible by waving the fee and instructors will bring photocopied work for the students to work with. Textbook publishers have also donated relevant books. McIlveen will also be onsite once a week to hold office hours, and an incarcerated student TA will be able to provide support throughout the week. 

Vancouver poet and Capilano Writing and literature instructor, Reg Johnson, hopes that outside students will share their resources as “the idea of sharing is fundamental to the pedagogy. That goes from the sharing of your experiences and feelings, all the way up to the sharing of resources.” Johnson, who completed the week-long training in Kitchener this summer, hopes to begin teaching Writing, and Literature to students in Fall 2020. 

Many of those on the inside are from marginalized groups, notably Indigenous communities, and have had difficult relationships with educational systems. Statistics Canada states that in 2017, 26% of those incarcerated were Indigenous adults—a group that makes up less than 5% of Canada’s population. Johnson stated that “we are living in a carceral society in which incarceration has become a tool of social control as governments refuse to deal with the systemic problems” and by having students and academics deal with prisoners on a peer-to-peer level he states that “undermines” that system of stigmatization that governments and media impose. The Walls to Bridges program offers those on the inside to connect with those on the outside and create relationships by putting everyone on equal footing.   

“There is something about the Walls to Bridges program that seems to bring out a totally different relationship to school. I’m pretty sure that some of the prisoners that I know do not have a good relationship to school. This pedagogy gives people a way to relate to schooling and education that does what school and education is supposed to [do], which is to be liberating as opposed to oppressive and I think Walls to Bridges has found that.” 

Both instructors hope to see the Walls to Bridges program pick up momentum in British Columbia, with more courses offered in varying correctional facilities as more instructors and institutions become interested. Long term, they hope this will result in an educational collective formed here in BC.   

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