March 21, 2019 - 9:45am
Thanks to a generous grant from the Vancouver Foundation, VIU’s Inside-Out program will not only continue, but triple in size.
There’s nothing anybody else could say about Joe Cramer that would be worse than the things he’s said about himself over the years.
A former child actor who got caught up in a cycle of addiction, rehab and jail in his 30s, Cramer ended up serving a nearly two-year sentence at Nanaimo Correctional Centre (NCC) in 2016 – a move he welcomed at the time.
“I basically committed a crime so that I could go to Guthrie House [a therapeutic community within the prison],” he says. “I was at the point where I had to find some help to change if I was going to survive.”
Once there, Cramer signed up for Inside-Out, a program that brings together inmates and Vancouver Island University (VIU) students to study together as peers. An innovative partnership between VIU and BC Corrections, the program helps the “inside” students re-integrate with the community and builds understanding and empathy among “outside” students.
“At first I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this, I’m just too broken,’” remembers Cramer. “Then I got my first paper back and when I saw I had gotten an ‘A’, I realized I could. That was huge for me.”
This newfound confidence encouraged Cramer to sign up for VIU’s Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies program. He hopes to return to acting and find ways to help others in similar situations.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Vancouver Foundation, Inside-Out is expanding this year. Since 2016, VIU has run one class per year at NCC – ever since Criminology Professor Joanne Falvai saw a presentation about the program, which was started nearly 20 years ago by Philadelphia-based Temple University, and got inspired.
The new funding will allow VIU to offer three classes per year – one for each semester – which will help meet growing demand from students wanting to take the course. It will also mean expanding it to Victoria-based Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre as well as NCC.
Witnessing the impact on both inside and outside students is Falvai’s reward for all the work up-front to get the program going. The course focuses on sharing reflections on the required readings and building community among participants. It includes large and small group discussion, activities, a team project and personal written reflections.
“The value comes not only from the content of the course. It also comes from students seeing themselves and others in a new light,” says Falvai.
“Criminology students go into all sorts of fields, but in many of their future careers there will be a power differential between them and their clients. This is an opportunity for them to be on a complete, level playing field with the inside students. As for the inside students, I remember one guy saying that the only ‘A’ he’d ever gotten before was for ‘Absent.’ It’s the most transformative teaching I’ve ever done.”
On top of kicking off with an intensive writing workshop for the inside students, many of whom have never taken a university course before, instructors hold office hours inside the centre.
“My first office hours of the semester, I had a lot of guys come in worried about the amount of reading in the course, and the amount of writing,” says VIU Criminology Professor Lauren Mayes, who is co-teaching Inside-Out with Falvai. “It takes a lot of guts just to apply. I hope the course can act as a small spark for people to realize that they can actually do these things.”
VIU Criminology alumna Rebecca Watmough, who is now in her final semester of law school at the University of Victoria, had never knowingly interacted with anyone who had been incarcerated. Participating in Inside-Out in 2016 gave her a new perspective that she will carry into her career as a lawyer.
“Inside-Out changed the way I view inmates – I realized they are just regular people who have successes, struggles and fears,” she says. “By the end of the course, we learned that inmates are so much more than their crimes.”
For Teri DuTemple, NCC Warden, who worked with Falvai to get the course going, the major impact she’s seen is in the personal growth of the inmates, including a recognition that getting a university education is achievable.
“Watching the men transform during the program is very rewarding,” she says. “You can almost see the point where they realize they have more to offer than they thought. I’m hoping the program expands provincewide, so more communities can benefit from its success.”
The course is high on Cramer’s list of things he recommends when he goes back to speak with residents of Guthrie House at NCC.
“Those men in there are so hard on themselves and it creates a wall that is so hard for them to climb,” he says. “I hope my story helps others. I look at where I’ve come from and if I can do it, anybody can.”
About the Vancouver Foundation
Vancouver Foundation is dedicated to creating healthy, vibrant and livable communities across BC. Since 1943, our donors have created 1,800 endowment funds and together we have distributed more than $1 billion to charities. From arts and culture to the environment, health and social development, education, medical research and more, we exist to make meaningful and lasting improvements to communities in BC.
Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University