Walls to Bridges – Students On the Outside Work with Students on the Inside to Get a Passing Grade

For Peter Stuart, Chief of Education at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, increasing access to post-secondary education for offenders can turn their lives around for the better. That is why he is proud to be a part of the Walls to Bridges (W2B) Program, an initiative that brings together students on the inside and outside of prison walls to study and learn. We reached out to Peter to get his thoughts on this important program and what it can achieve within corrections.

What is Walls to Bridges and what does it aim to accomplish?

The Walls to Bridges (W2B) Program involves students from a local university (outside students) attending classes inside a correctional facility to study with students who are incarcerated (inside students). The universities cover the full cost of the program and all students earn credit for the courses, which can be applied to an undergraduate degree.

Participation in post-secondary studies while incarcerated has been shown to have a considerable impact on recidivism for offenders, resulting in significant cost savings for correctional facilities, governments, and taxpayers.  However, the goal of the program is much larger than that. It strives to create links between those who are incarcerated and the community at large to encourage understanding and learning.

How did W2B come to be and how long has it been running?

W2B came to Canada in 2009 as an extension of the Inside-Out program in the US, and was called Inside-Out until 2014. Inside-Out was founded by Lori Pompa of Temple University in 1995.

The first W2B course was taught at Grand Valley Institution in September 2011. The course, Diversity, Marginalization, and Oppression, was facilitated by Dr. Shoshana Pollack, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. Since 2011, W2B has expanded across Canada and courses have been delivered in federal and provincial correctional facilities, at community residential facilities, and on university campuses.

At Grand Valley Institution, each year two or three courses are offered in the fall, winter, and/or spring terms. Most of these courses are from Wilfrid Laurier University, which is the national hub of the program, but GVI has also hosted courses from the University of Toronto, Mississauga, and Renison University College at the University of Waterloo. GVI has also had discussions with the University of Guelph, McMaster University, and Brock University about possible involvement in our program.

How does it work?

Everyone in a W2B class is a university student working with other students to learn, challenge one another, and achieve. Academic expectations are the same for all students and all students are treated equally. While there is an obvious difference in their personal circumstances, W2B focuses on commonalities and shared experiences rather than differences. Classes are balanced 50/50 between outside and inside students and students are expected to work together as they would in any other class.   Classes usually take place one a week for three hours per class over the course of a typical 10-week term.

What are your favorite results of the program? What stands out to you as noteworthy?

The W2B program at GVI has opened up the possibility of post-secondary education to many women who would not otherwise have seen it as a viable option upon release.  We have women in colleges or universities right now who I am confident would not have done so without this program.

Since the program opened at GVI, over 100 different women have earned over 150 university credits. We just had a formerly-incarcerated W2B student, who completed her undergraduate degree while at GVI, earn her Masters of Social Work degree at Wilfrid Laurier University this year. Not only has she turned her own life around, but as a social worker she will help hundreds or thousands of other people.  

W2B doesn’t just run classes, they continue a relationship with the students after the class is over and support them when they return to the community. This support has been a huge contributor to the women at GVI post-release.

What do the offenders get out of it?

In addition to university credits toward a degree, W2B helps the incarcerated students gain confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy that will make them more likely to succeed in the community. It also helps them understand the greater societal issues that contribute to their circumstances and what they can do to help themselves and others in order to keep them out of places like GVI.

What do the outside students get out of it?

Outside students get to work with people with life experiences and challenges that are usually quite different from their own. They get to see a completely different way of life in a correctional facility and the challenges incarcerated people face. University is about expanding a person’s horizons, opening them up to new ideas and experiences, and challenging their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions … W2B does all of those things, probably better than any other class. I frequently hear from outside students that they learned more in their W2B class than in any other class they’ve ever taken.

What is the most rewarding aspect of this program and your personal involvement in it? Why is it an important part of corrections?

I am honoured to have been a part of W2B from the beginning. I know that by increasing access to post-secondary education for incarcerated students, I am helping them turn their lives around, increasing public safety, and saving taxpayers’ money.    Every year I am approached by a student who tells me how W2B has opened her mind and changed how she sees the world.

We’d like to thank Peter for sharing his thoughts with us. We wish all students well in their studies.  

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Norman Guntensperger

As a teacher new to CSC, working at Millhaven Institution, I am most interested in finding out about this program and if there is any possibility we might be able to get something similar going here. I do have a potential candidate in mind, a bright, young, and engaged high-school graduate, who would love to get involved in university level courses. Would someone be able to direct me to a contact, or a next step, that might be available to our teaching staff as we try to help this young man further develop himself through post-secondary academics?