Bendigo’s Criminology course is about to have a profound influence on people on either side of the justice system.
Enrolments are now being taken for the campus’ first Inside-Out program, in partnership with RMIT, which will see students and prisoners study alongside each other, within the Loddon Prison.
It’s all thanks to lecturer Tarmi A’Vard, who has delivered the program through RMIT for the past six years.
“I wanted to make Bendigo a much more rich place to study Criminology and to give Bendigo students something unique,” she says.
“For the outside students, they actually get to engage with people who are experiencing the criminal justice system, so when they go on to work in their profession, they have actually spoken to people while not in an authoritative position and can see that people who are serving time are human.
“We get them to do different activities to see that sometimes it’s just a split-second decision that can make a person end up in prison. We don’t encourage the inside students to share why they’re there. We’re not there to study them, it’s just purely to have that connection.
“For the inside students, they get to see that there’s much more to them than the offence they’ve committed. It helps break down that stigma and stereotype. It also helps them find their voice. A lot of them realise that academic study is within their grasp, and we encourage them to continue that on their release.”
From hairdresser to criminologist
Tarmi herself had an unconventional pathway to tertiary study and academia. In the cases of extreme career changes, hers is a standout.
“I was a hairdresser for so long, but I found a real interest in prisons,” she says. “And my interest has always been around correctional systems of the criminal justice system.
“I remember going on prison tours when I was really young and it just fascinated me how people could be taken out of society and put into these places. How a state or country could do that to people.
“When I was doing my hairdressing I was reading a lot of true crime books and I just got to a point in my life where I decided to do it. Where I was ready to give uni a go. It’s the best decision I’ve made by far.”
Tarmi graduated with a degree in criminal justice from RMIT, which kickstarted a varied career. She has worked as a community corrections officer, with the Country Fire Authority, in youth justice and as a family support worker and justice worker for Indigenous services.
“I’ve worked in so many areas to get an idea of what’s out there and what criminology can actually lead people to do,” she says. “And then I found my love, my passion. After being introduced to Inside-Out by Dr Marietta Marinovic, who brought the program to Australia, I went and did training in the US to become a facilitator to deliver education in prisons.”
For Tarmi’s Inside-Out program, 15 La Trobe students will study a module of the Criminology course alongside 15 incarcerated people.
“I’m so excited,” she says of the opportunity. “The teaching I love. I love to talk to people. And in the prison there’s no technology, so it’s all about dialogue and that’s so powerful. I really want the students to understand how important it is to sit down and talk with people.
“At the end we have a graduation where the students bring their families along, and that’s where you get to hear what the program has really meant to them. It’s the highlight of my whole year.
“I’m really looking forward to the students at La Trobe experiencing that and I’m also really excited about getting into Loddon Prison. It will be the first time Inside-Out has been run there and I think it will bring something really special to the men inside.”
Beyond Inside Out
The program has also had a big influence on past graduates, with many going on to research how to prevent people returning to prison.
“The system is so broken, I really fear because we follow in the US footsteps so closely,” Tarmi says of tough-on-crime policies and restricting people to reintegrate into their communities upon release.
“We need society’s views to shift. It’s about changing the stigma around people who may be disadvantaged or different. Essentially it all comes down to the way we talk about people. You know, if we’re going to get right back to the nitty gritty, it’s about how we use our language to disassociate ourselves from people. As soon as we start talking about people in a certain way, then we can do this to them.”
Tarmi’s own research is around education and how children are taught in schools. “I’m looking at the discipline in schools, the process of suspension and expulsion and how that leads to the prison system. Labelling kids as good or bad is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the end.”
Tarmi says while change is notoriously slow in the criminal justice system, inspiring her students to strive for that will lead to a better future.
Criminology students are now invited to enrol in the Inside-Out program and can register for an information session on Monday, May 10 via this link