Special to Mustang News
Twenty minutes before his class is supposed to start, Stefan Weidemann grabs his backpack and gets in his car. He drives past Cal Poly heading for Highway 1, making sure his headlights are on so he can see through the night sky. He makes a left onto Kansas Road and soon arrives at his destination. With a gated fence to his left, Weidemann walks forward with his notebook and driver’s license in hand.
He opens the door and sees the guard, who is ready to check him in.
This was the standard routine for Weidemann, one of 21 students who took a sociology class at the county jail of San Luis Obispo last fall quarter. Twelve of the students were Cal Poly students, while the remaining nine were inmates from the Women’s Honor Farm, a separate division of county jail.
Ryan Alaniz, an assistant professor of sociology, came up with the idea of the class, “Incarceration and Society,” three years ago. Along with former Cal Poly sociology professor Chris Bickel, they both proposed the idea to the jail and to Restorative Partners. Originally it was for the inmates, not Cal Poly students.
“Then we discussed it again this summer and thought it would be a really good opportunity to bridge the very privileged university setting and students with the marginalized and allow them to dialogue,” Alaniz said.
When proposing the idea, Cal Poly administration wasn’t delighted with the idea of sending students to county jail because of possible issues that could come up, but they did agree to a trial run.
Alaniz said that the unique nature of the class made it easier to label as an independent study course.
“And also this way, it didn’t have quite the stringent rules associated with it,” Alaniz said.
Alaniz also had to be careful in choosing which Cal Poly students would be part of the trial run.
Alaniz chose students based on levels of interest and maturity. It was critical to get the best students who were open-minded, mature and vulnerable, he said. Background checks were run on all the students who also had to fill out paperwork that was verified by the sheriff’s department before being cleared to enter the facility.
Weidemann, a sociology senior major with an organizations concentration, was one of the two men who participated in the class.
“I wasn’t too afraid, but I definitely had preconceptions that were definitely influenced by television and the media. But being in [sociology] classes you learn how those preconceptions aren’t always true,” he said.
The class wasn’t structured like a regular college class.
The SOC 400 course was about breaking barriers between the “outside” and “inside.” The “outside” refers to the community and world outside of the correctional facilities, including the Cal Poly students. The term “inside” refers to not just the women taking the class, but every inmate who is incarcerated.
Lisa Rojas, who was an inside student, was released a few months after the class was over and returned back to the city of Los Angeles to start a new life with her children.
Rojas was incarcerated in the San Luis Obispo County Jail for commercial burglary but was housed in a separate unit called the Women’s Honor Farm. A majority of programming, a term used to describe the various rehabilitative classes, is held at these facilities. The variety of rehab programs such as yoga and Alternatives to Violence (AVP) workshops are meant to encourage those incarcerated to take the next step to change their lives. These programs try to help build the foundation for restorative justice, a positive way of transforming those who have been affected by crime.
The Honor Farm is a different housing unit for offenders who have low-risk offenses and have been sentenced for 30 days or more. Recently, unsentenced women have been sent due to county jail’s overcrowding.
When she heard about the sociology class, Rojas signed up.
“I thought it was a great idea,” she said. “I thought it was a lot more of (Cal Poly students) getting to know us. The class taught us academically and also got us to know them better.”
Rojas said that she felt lost half the time, but she understood the broader meaning of all the sociological concepts being taught. Though she wishes the class could have focused more on the experiences of the “inside” students, she said she would take the class again if she ever had the chance.
This class included a service learning component where the Cal Poly students had to spend 12 hours programming in the Honor Farm or the local juvenile hall. These programs included gardening, yoga and meditation, tutoring or being a part of the AVP workshops.
“Although it didn’t seem quite like service in the traditional sense, I believe in the restorative justice sense, it’s engaging with people, making relationships and making people believe we’re all in this together,” Alaniz said. “There is a ‘human-ness’ connection. That’s service in my mind.”
Weidemann completed his 12 hours with both the men and women at the Honor Farm and agrees with the goal Alaniz had in mind.
“I got to talk to the inmates, and it brought humanity to every inmate that I talked to. Some of them have children and some wanted to get out and spend time with their son,” said Weidemann. “It made them seem just like I could have been in their place. It could’ve been me.”
Throughout the quarter, Alaniz saw the creation of relationships and connections between the students. It was awkward at first, but both sides were able to listen and hear each other’s stories.
“We have a state prison and a county jail in our backyard and, you have this population that is invisible to most residents of San Luis Obispo. By providing these classes, students have an opportunity to see into this invisible population,” Alaniz said.
Society and the media often provide us with negative stereotypes about those in the criminal justice system, but when we meet the inmates face-to-face, our perceptions change, he said.
“I hope (the students) see that we are all human beings,” Alaniz said.
Weidemann saw how motivated the women were throughout the quarter and how the class encouraged them to seek more for their future.
“I think it gives them an insight in what control they have over their lives and that they can get out of there and go to college and they can choose what they really like,” he said.
The class, along with other jail programs, Rojas said, pushed her to move ahead and think differently than before.
“It opened my eyes,” she said. “I am trying to put a change in my ways this time.”
Rojas has found a job and is spending all her spare time with her kids.
Weidemann is grateful he took the class, as he learned that the issue of a broken criminal justice system is bigger than it seems.
“I think it was life-changing,” he said. “It taught me not to judge people right away. It made me a better human being.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to Rojas.