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Stetson class changes lives at Tomoka

Ranjini Thaver“It was transformative for all of us,” said Ranjini L. Thaver, Ph.D., professor of economics and a specialist in areas of poverty, microcredit and international trade. As part of the 300-level independent study class, ‘Poverty and Prisoner Rehabilitation,’ Thaver, along with her four students, Daniel Humphrey, Kristen Jones, Emily Lang and Jimmie Lopez, collaborated with Horizon Communities In Prison to bring an entrepreneurship workshop to a small, group of mostly soon-to-be-released prisoners at the Tomoka Correctional Institute, located in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Horizon Communities in Prison is a non-profit, inter-faith organization dedicated to reforming the lives of prisoners through restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice, by offering various educational classes within the prison system—a method that Thaver and her students are passionate about.

“I believe in the basic respect and dignity of all human beings, and that’s the philosophical basis of my classes,” said Thaver. And that is what they demonstrated in Tomoka Correctional Institute where they went every Monday evening, starting September 30, for seven weeks.

“We all sat around one table among our ‘clients.’ We never really thought of them as prisoners when we were there,” explained Daniel Humphrey, sophomore, double major in economics and political science. The workshop was discussion-based, rather than a traditional lecture.

“We explained to our clients that it’s just chance. We could have been in similar situations,” said Kristen Jones, junior, psychology major. “There’s no way we could ever understand what they’ve been through. So putting ourselves on their level really helped them connect with us.”

The clients came up with ideas for businesses, based on skills and talents they already possessed, everything from starting a restaurant to opening a dog training facility. During the workshop, the students personally worked with one to three clients to do further research and help them flesh out business plans and skill-sets.

“They are really excited about their ideas; they feel like they really have something to start out with,” said Emily Lang, junior, economics major.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world even though its crime rate is similar to many other countries, according to Thaver. A combination of the commercialization of fear, the privatization of prison systems and the focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation, among others, has fueled higher prison rates. “My class, with the unconditional support of Warden Terry Royal of Tomoka CI, was an attempt to contribute to rehabilitation by educating soon-to-be-released prisoners,” said Thaver.

“In Florida, one out of every three released offenders will return to prison within three years,” Lang explained. This implies that a large portion of the future prison populations can already be targeted by education.

Decreasing the likelihood of reoffending will reduce the prison population and simultaneously reduce the large outlay of tax dollars,” Jones continued. “Reentry programs aimed at education give viable employment skills enabling each individual to have a competitive edge in the job market,” Jones said.

“The more money put into the education system, the more the crime rate declines,” said Jimmie Lopez, senior, double-major in economics and finance, who has completed his research for the final project in Thaver’s class. “So, as a fiscal issue, it makes sense to invest money into a restorative and rehabilitative program.”

With the current prison system of retributive justice, there is a dehumanization of offenders that simply isn’t focused on restoring them into contributing members of society. Instead, as Thaver explained, it does not lower the rate of recidivism. “They simply breed smarter criminals,” Humphrey surmised.

“Our class was designed to help prisoners learn how to start their own business,” said Humphrey. “But what we ended up doing was help prisoners learn how to be human. Our views on the world and prison in general have become totally different. I think we need to expand this program so more people are able to have this life-changing experience.”

This is Thaver’s mission and the mission of the students she inspires. “As members of universities, if our mission is to transform lives, this is a fantastic opportunity,” Thaver said. “It helps not only the transformation of the lives of our students, but it also makes a difference in society as a whole.

“Even if we are just five grains of sand, and those five grains are not observable at any one point, the fact is they are going to contribute to an ocean of change.”

by George Salis