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Inmate Outreach Earns Professor "Love of Neighbor" Award

James Perry has been honored for his work with an inmate outreach program that brings together NWU students enrolled in a criminal justice course with inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
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James Perry has been honored for his work with an inmate outreach program that brings together NWU students enrolled in a criminal justice course with inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

Nine years ago, Associate Professor of Professional Studies James Perry started a book club bringing NWU students together with Nebraska State Penitentiary inmates.

The shared eagerness of their interactions led Perry to expand the club into something more.

Today, “College Is the Key to Inmates’ Tomorrow” gives both groups college credit: NWU students help teach introductory criminal justice while inmates earn credit and plan for better lives after prison, said Perry.

“I think that they feel like they have potential,” Perry said of the inmates. “They have a sense that they can think and they can write, and they have a brighter future than they did otherwise.”

Others have noticed Perry’s work. In October, First Plymouth Church in Lincoln gave Perry its Love of Neighbor Award. The honor came with a $10,000 award that will help pay inmates’ tuition.

Aunna Strutzenberg, a senior psychology major from Council Bluffs, Iowa, was apprehensive about working with prisoners.

“I had stereotypes of the kind of people I was going to meet,” she said. “I think that going there and listening to their problems and realizing they’re struggling with things that everyday people struggle with, it makes them less of a silent figure and you can relate.”

Now Strutzenberg hopes to apply her experience to a career focusing on substance abuse in the prison population.

“I knew I wanted to be a therapist, but I had no idea what direction,” Strutzenberg said. “I’ve loved interacting with these men, and challenging them.” She said the inmates have likewise “challenged my thinking.”  

Karlie Bracht, a senior education major from West Point, Neb., said her conversations with inmates have taught her lessons she’ll use with future students.

“Many of the men shared stories about how from an early age they were labeled as a bad kid,” said Bracht. “Saying that simple word, ‘bad,’ can really make kids think they’re irredeemable. Now, whenever I’m with kids, I always come back to that.”

Throughout the nine years, nearly 70 NWU students have worked with over 100 inmates.

Regardless if students are interested in criminal justice, the program is a rewarding opportunity, Taylon Sumners, a senior sociology and anthropology major from Aurora, Mo.

“There is so much to gain,” she said. “It’s taking it outside of the textbook and it allow you to meet the people who are committing the crimes and seeing them for who they are.”

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—Story by Emmalie Harris, public relations intern