Prison program empowers inmates

Student-run program helps Frontenac Institution inmates integrate back into society

Five commerce students organize a weekly program at Frontenac Institution to help inmates integrate back into society after their release from prison.
Five commerce students organize a weekly program at Frontenac Institution to help inmates integrate back into society after their release from prison.

Five commerce students are taking their education out of the classroom and into the prison system.

Julia Hunter, Lisa McLaughling and Robyn Williams, all Comm ’11 and exchange students Alexander Buesching and Thomas Verbist designed a program that gives inmates at Frontenac Institution minimum security prison lessons on integrating back into society.

The group meets with inmates every Wednesday at the institution to discuss topics such as fashion, food and Facebook.

Williams said the project was created for a leadership course, COMM 351, where each group in the class was asked to create a project that would bring about positive change in the community. “We wanted to do something different,” Williams said. “We’ve already done stuff on nutrition, grocery shopping, etiquette, manners, clothing, fashion, where to shop, what to buy.

“We’ve all just been surprised by how comfortable it is in there. It looks just like a high school,” she said. Williams said the group hopes to pass the project on to incoming COMM 351 students next term.

“We have seen a lot of positivity from the prisoners, and so that’s why we’d like to keep it going.”

Verbist, a fifth year commerce student from Belgium, said he came up with the idea for the project after learning about Kingston’s abundance of penitentiaries.

“Because I’m an exchange student and I didn’t know all about Kingston … I looked up some things and I saw that there are nine prisons here,” he said, adding that he was inspired to create the program by a group in his hometown that plays sports at local prisons.

“We wanted to have something more educational than just sports which the inmates have a lot of, so we came up with some ideas for education and the first idea about nutrition,” he said. “We didn’t know what to expect for that and it ended up pretty well.” Verbist said the group initially felt anxious about how the inmates would react to their advice.

“In the beginning when we just arrived, everybody was pretty nervous because we really didn’t know what to expect and we just didn’t know if they would respond to our questions or not and whether they would interact,” he said. “In the first session there were eight or nine and in the second there were 12 or 13 and we heard that’s a pretty good number.” In the group’s session about technology on Wednesday, inmates were educated about laptop computers, iPods, smartphones and social networking sites. Many of them inquired about the price of a laptop, how to send an e-mail, how to access WiFi and the best program for recording journal entries to send to parole officers. For some of the men in attendance, even the Internet itself was a foreign concept.

Frontenac Institution Manager of Programs Christine Grant said the program gives inmates the opportunity to learn about things that will affect their day-to-day lives once they’re released.

“The goal of the program from our point of view is to give the men information that will help them when they go back to their home community,” she said. “We do a lot to prepare them with things like substance abuse and anger management, but this is more the social aspect of going back into the community.” Grant said other student groups have done sessions in the prison, such as a course on business planning, but this one is unique in its coverage of such topics as contemporary fashion and dating etiquette. “Most of these things we don’t cover, and it’s especially good to hear from young people in the community because some of these men have been in for 15 years, 20 years, so they don’t know what’s going on out there,” she said. “Even though they have satellite TV, there are some things that they just don’t see.” Grant said the program appears to be popular with the dozen or so inmates that attend.

“I think it’s a positive sign that they’re coming back each week,” Grant said.

Adisa Halls, an inmate at Frontenac Institution, has attended all of the sessions so far. He said he is grateful for the effort the students put into giving their lessons.

“Any visitors are good, and it’s nice to hear what they have to say,” he said. “We really appreciate the time they put into the presentations. I haven’t been in here very long, but a lot of the guys who have been here for a lot of time find it very useful.”

Please see for excerpts from the students’ blog about their experience.


Unedited excerpts from the five commerce students’ blog on their experience visiting Frontenac Institution:

“The institute itself was kind of strange, because the building we were entering had no particular security devices visible. I was a bit confused since I was expecting a lot of guards and other security devices, but to be honest it was a more common and relaxed environment than at security check zones in a regular airport.

So as we browsed through our topics we were all suprised how open they were to things we wanted to tell them and how much they wanted to share with us. One thing which struck us all, when we were talking later that evening in our team, that they were thinking pretty far ahead and that they were for example able to calculate prices of their grocery shopping cart faster than we could.

We also have many laughts this evening, especially when we or shall i say the girls talked about fashion. You have to imagine that there are inmates present ranging in age from 25 to 72 with all sorts of backgrounds so its always fun when totally different point of views clash together in a good atmosphere.”


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