COLUMBUS — Some students at Ohio State University are taking a different approach to their education. That approach, which is centered on social justice, is fueling a drive to help those who are incarcerated.  

What You Need To Know

  • OSU students attending class with the incarcerated are challenged to discover how they can create a more just and equitable society
  • Since the prison education exchange project has been in place, some OSU students have changed their majors and career aspirations because of the insights gained from the program
  • A couple of incarcerated students who have been released have continued with their higher education pursuit

It’s another part of the university’s Ohio Prison Education Exchange Project, which aims to expose students to the “realities of mass incarceration.”

“We're also hoping that they can see the expansiveness of the carceral state and that it exists not only in carceral structures and prison institutions, but also in our educational system in the ways that particularly black and brown communities are policed," said Associate Professor and Co-Director of OPEEP, Dr. Tiyi Morris.

At the same time, Morris hopes that as students step foot into prisons and sit in class to learn with those who are incarcerated, they’ll be able to make those connections between what's happening in their neighborhoods, what's happening on campus, what's happening in their classrooms, the way that we understand authority, the way that we respond to authority, and the way that our citizen citizenship rights are infringed upon in general.

Aside from that, the hope is also that students in the class will see beyond labels given by society, be authentic, and see each other as equals. 

OSU student Aaron Sakwa is one of the students who spent the entire semester attending class with justice-involved individuals.

“I know there’s an outside world where people have different stories and different lifestyles. So I just wanted to know more about theirs,” Sakwa said.

As he learned with them, he looked at the experience with the thought that they were there for the same purpose, which was to get an education.

“We’re all humans and we all have one heart, one body, one mind, one sound, and we should just respect that,” he said.

Beyond the education, he was appreciative because he built bonds and friendships that went beyond his OSU peers. 

As for the future, Sakwa now hopes that he can begin shifting the perspective of society.

“And that has been my goal from when my mom went to prison and when she got out,” he said. “We think of them as incarcerated. People are just sort of people that are living different lives.”

In the meantime, the 19-year-old is also focused on becoming a pediatrician. Based on his OPEEP experience this semester, he said he wants to provide health care for those in the juvenile justice system. 

While the program is still fairly new, it’s these kinds of experiences that are becoming an inspiration not only for those on campus but also for those behind bars who may or may not be released from prison.