Kitchener-Waterloo

University education program still on hold for inmates across Canada

As university and college students start school this month, inmates across the country will not have access to a program that offers university credits at no cost.

The Walls to Bridges program has been on hiatus at prisons and jails since the start of the pandemic

Melissa Alexander took three courses through the Walls to Bridges program before her release from Grand Valley Institution in 2017. She says the group of people she met through the program have helped her forge her own path. (Submitted by Shoshana Pollack)

As university and college students start school this month, inmates across the country will not have access to a program that offers university credits at no cost.

The Walls to Bridges program has been on hiatus at federal prisons and provincial jails since the start of the pandemic shutdown in March as a safety precaution. It's not clear when it'll start again, according to Shoshana Pollack, who founded the program in partnership with Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. in 2011.

The program has been taught in five federal institutions across Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia, as well as several provincial jails. It's even been expanded to a jail in Paris, France.

The university or college working with the facility helps fund the course for the incarcerated students with the help of community organizations and charities, and then the other half of the class is made up of students from the school.

"We're the only post-secondary program in Canada that brings people from outside to study with people on the inside," said Pollack, who's also a professor in the Department of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The program is an accessible option for students because it doesn't require an internet connection, which inmates don't often have access to, said Pollack.

'Felt like I was a human being'

Rachel Fayter, who was incarcerated at Grand Valley Institution from 2014 to 2017, says she's concerned for the students who are missing out on the program because of the pandemic.

"For those folks that are locked up, Walls to Bridges might have been their only opportunity to have an education," said Fayter.

"There's not very much access to [post-secondary] education, there's not internet access, the computers are ancient … any kind of mail correspondence you have to pay for the courses yourself. So it's very difficult for somebody in prison and has no income."

Fayter, who's now a third year PhD student in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, says the program changed her life.

It didn't happen after the first class, but the confidence it gave her changed her outlook. She became hopeful again.

"In the Walls to bridges classroom, it was the first time in probably a year where I actually felt like I was a human being and my voice and experiences were valuable and respected," said Fayter.

The classes are taught through a learning circle. The idea is to allow all perspectives into the circle, learn from one another and discover how students' experiences have shaped how they view the world.

'Don't know where I'd be'

Since 2011, there have been 559 inmates across the country who have taken courses through the program.

Rachel Fayter (left) and Shoshana Pollack (second from left) with two other alumni of the program. Fayter says the program changed her life. (Submitted by Shoshana Pollack)

Melissa Alexander is another graduate. She was studying computer systems technology at Seneca College in Toronto before she became an inmate at Grand Valley Institution. 

"When you're inside, you feel like you have no rights," said Alexander. "Even when you get out you feel like there's nothing you can do because you have a permanent record."

Alexander took four courses over three years through the social work department at Laurier. 

Inmates who complete courses then become part of a collective, helping advise the program going forward. She describes that community as pivotal in helping her forge a path for herself after her release in 2017.

"Without this group, I don't know where I'd be today," said Alexander, who now is a peer support worker in Toronto and a carpenter apprentice. She also plans to get her degree in social work with a minor in law.

'It's a necessity'

Peter Stuart, chief of education at Grand Valley Institution, says when women come into the prison, they're often hungry to learn. They want to further their education, he says, and post-secondary education is critical.

"This idea that post-secondary education is a perk for offenders, I think is an outdated concept. I think it's a necessity," said Stuart.

"In our society, a high school diploma is obviously essential, but it's not really enough anymore. Especially if you have a criminal record as an obstacle, you need to have not only the same as what other people have, but if anything something more," said Stuart.

He says the prison looked at different models such as video conferencing to keep the program going through the pandemic, but Walls to Bridges relies on having students from the outside and inside together in one space without barriers.

"The model that Walls to Bridges uses just couldn't work while COVID protocols were in effect,'' said Stuart.

The women have been taking part in literature exchanges and correspondence while the program is on hold, according to Stuart. He hopes the program will start running again in the spring of 2021 at the prison. 

"As soon as we get the go ahead from public health and provincial and federal authorities, we'll bring it back in immediately," said Stuart.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

About the Author

Julianne Hazlewood is a multimedia journalist who's worked at CBC newsrooms across the country as a host, video journalist, reporter and producer. Have a story idea? julianne.hazlewood@cbc.ca

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