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Service-Learning With Jailed Partners: Overcoming Negative Stereotypes


service-learningDonna Dufner, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) in the College of Information Science & Technology. Judith Monarrez Diaz-Kelsey, MS is an Academic Advisor at UN0. Pamela Ashley, M.Ed. is a Program Assessment and Evaluation Associate at UNO.

This story describes a service-learning course, commonly referred to as “The Jail Course” developed and offered for ten years through successful collaboration between the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and the Douglas County Department of Corrections (DCDC), the community partner. Service-Learning courses such as “The Jail Course” provide students with opportunities to overcome negative stereotypes through learning about and interaction with others who are different.

The following sections offer the reader suggestions for sustainability and the achievement of successful educational outcomes. The lessons learned are gleaned from a decade long partnership between the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and the Douglas County Department of Corrections (DCDC).

Finding Sustainable Partnerships
The cornerstones of a sustainable community partnership are vision, trust, respect, and flexibility. To bring a service-learning course to fruition communication and planning are required; however, a shared vision of the benefits of the course is the foundation upon which our course was developed and delivered successfully for ten years.

Delivering a service-learning course each semester inside the DCDC (the Jail) involving UNO students and inmates increased the workload of many, e.g., the jail staff and administration, the UNO students , and UNO faculty (see Intensity and Duration below). The importance of a community partner with vision and the willingness to perform the extra work each semester cannot be over emphasized. A sustainable partnership is a marathon divided into semester sprints. The sprints provide the opportunity to realize actual benefits and reinforce the relationship. The realization of benefits provides the platform for a sustainable course.

A course syllabus developed in cooperation with UNO faculty and the DCDC administration addressed each partner’s expectations regarding educational outcomes, constraints and .benefits. For example, inmates have rigid meal and activity schedules, and UNO courses are delivered on a semester basis at specific times and days of the week just to list a few.

Formal educational outcomes for the college students included learning a customer service orientation and experiencing service to a marginalized segment of the community, while the attending inmates learned essential computer skills as well as increased confidence with technology and people from outside of the jail. The inmates learned skills that would help them make a successful reentry into society such as knowledge of technology and maintenance of social networks.

service learningCreating Buy-In and Preparing for Action
The initial four weeks of the Jail Course are spent on campus. Remaining classes are conducted at the jail. During these first sessions on campus students complete assigned readings, present a formal talk to fellow students regarding education and incarceration, and learn how to keep a journal of reflections. The UNO students are instructed to be respectful, patient and supportive and encouraging.

Requirements for admission and participation in this elective course are rigorous for UNO students. Students must pass a background check mandated by the DCDC, and attend the Jail-based training, conducted on a Saturday morning at the Jail before the academic semester begins.

The jail training agenda includes: Volunteering, e.g., dress code, conduct, criminal thinking, errors in thinking, and training in self-defense; Policies, e.g., contraband, fraternization, and harassment; Procedures to follow while in the jail; a facility tour; Emergency procedures; Jail jargon/vocabulary; and Hostage situation management.

A tour of the jail follows the formal training session. Photo IDS and parking permits are issued to students once training is completed.

Students must wear their photo ID badge at all times while in the jail, dress appropriately and be on-time. A forgotten badge, dirty shoes or torn jeans will result in the student being sent home.


Addressing Service and Participant Voice
During the first day of class at the jail, the UNO tutors listen carefully to the inmate they have been assigned to tutor. A lesson plan customized to meet the individual inmate’s needs and skill level is then developed.

All inmates are encouraged to write letters to their families and to make cards to send to their loved ones using the computer based tools available to them such as Microsoft Word, and Publisher. Writing letters and making cards assists inmates in maintaining their social relationships – a critical factor in the inmate clients’ future successful reentry into society and to provide motivation for learning to use the computer and software tools.

service learningThe inmates and UNO students are assigned to read, How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life, Rath and Clifton, D.O. 2004. Compliments and praise add drops to one’s “bucket”. Criticism of oneself or others dips drops. Most inmates dip from their own buckets through self-criticism. The entire class engages in bucket filling by offering compliments to one another.

After a lifetime of negative self-talk inmates initially have a very difficult time identifying even one positive characteristic about themselves. UNO students and inmates help by offering compliments such as “you like to learn” and “you did a great job”.

The following sections present a small selection of the reflections of both inmates and UNO students. Reflections gathered over a decade are all extremely positive.

The Students Respond
Initially students may have enrolled in the Jail Course, an elective, to add community service to their resumes, a self-directed motive aimed at generating employment opportunities. Over the course of the semester student journal reflections began to discuss feelings of compassion and empathy for inmates.

"This class has been an amazing experience. I’ve learned so much from working with the inmates and have enjoyed my time volunteering with the Douglas County Department of Corrections. I came into this class knowing very little about what each day would look like, and I’ve realized that is because each day is different; the inmates drive what activities you do and what you teach them. That was the best part - knowing that what you taught them was something they were passionate about, interested in learning and would use later in their life to better themselves."


"Throughout this class, I have learned that jails can be places for rehabilitation, healing, and change. I’ve learned that it is easy to fall into the wrong path and difficult to get out. I’ve learned that people who make mistakes should always be forgiven and encouraged to do better. I’ve learned that we should never give up on people and instead give them and society hope for the future."

"Before this class, I, like most people, thought everybody in jail was a bad person and must deserve to be there because of what they had done. I now have an entirely different outlook on the inmates. They are just people. And somehow along the way they made a mistake, some small, some larger than others. That doesn’t make them bad people; that makes them human."

service learningOur Jail Partners Respond

"This class helps me and the others to focus our minds on something that helps us forget our situation for a least an hour. This class gives us a moment to relax and work on our abilities to imagine and create things on the computer. Of course we all learn different things that will help benefit us in the future."

"This class has helped me in many other ways besides expanding my computer skills. Zack and all the other students here from UNO have given me a sense of normalcy here and peace for the time that is spent in this class. I’m very grateful that this class is available for me and I hope that it is for the people to come in the future. Thank you very much!"

"I just want to thank all the students that came in to help us learn a little more about using a computer. For me it was more than just learning a few tricks on the computer. More important is that I have been able to spent time and energy looking toward the future and focusing on the positive things in my life. I’ve also gained confidence in myself and in my ability to continue to grow and learn. I could not ask to be placed in a better environment, all things considered. Thanks everybody.
You bring light to dark places. Thank you."

Course evaluations and inmate presentations show we have achieved the learning outcomes expected for inmates and UNO students. The ten year partnership shows that sustainability is achievable. The inmate and student voices above show that negative stereotypes can, indeed, be changed.


National Youth Leadership Council (2008). K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice.

Rath, T and Clifton, D.O. (2004) How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life. NY: Gallup Press.

Dufner, D.; Monarrez Diaz-Kelsey, J.; and P. Ashley (2015) “Journeys of Self-Discovery: A Decade of Using Service-Learning to Teach Computer Literacy to Inmates.” Lincoln, NE

Author Bios:
Donna Dufner, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is the recipient of many teaching awards and her research has been published in a variety of scholarly journals. For an in-depth biography go to

Judith Monarrez Diaz-Kelsey, MS a licensed mental health practitioner and addictions counselor, worked with court ordered clientele. In that role she became all too familiar with the cultural and educational deficits of incarcerated individuals and their special emotional needs. Ms. Monarrez Diaz-Kelsey was instrumental in developing and delivering the “Jail” Course.

Pamela Ashley, M.Ed. is a Program Evaluator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). She has filled that role in two of UNO's celebrated programs: the nationally-known Service Learning Academy and the well-respected STEPS program.


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