College of Human Sciences

Covid-19 presents new opportunities for CHS CE project

As people around the world find new and innovative ways to work and socialise, scholars within Unisa’s College of Human Sciences are also finding creative ways to continue breathing life into their community engagement (CE) projects.

One such project is the Inside-Out Outside-In South African Corrections Interest Group (Inside-Out) which was started in 2013 by staff and students in the Department of Psychology. At its conceptual stage, the group was founded with the aim of sharing knowledge and experiences about projects, organisations and research relating to corrections. Two years later, the initiative evolved to become a formal CE project aimed at empowering and engaging the corrections community through various volunteer initiatives while adhering to the principles underpinning community psychology.

Inside Out round-table discussion groups with offenders, pre-Covid-19.

Bottom-up approach

Speaking on why the project is important and how is it helping the community, one of the project members, Dr Bianca Parry, explains how it operates. She says, primarily, Inside-Out initiatives focus on the development of tertiary education opportunities for offenders, issues of social reintegration and recidivism after release, and issues relating to the families and relatives of offenders.

"One such example is our longest running initiative, the Inside-Out Books Project, which facilitates donations to correctional centre libraries, via an online cataloguing and distribution system, which has seen thousands of academic and literary books, magazines and newspapers donated to correctional libraries across South Africa."

She says the project team also understand the importance of a bottom-up approach that puts emphasis on the participation of the correctional community in the development of initiatives. This has resulted in two self-sustaining initiatives, originated by Inside-Out academic research studies: the Fatherhood Project, where a support group meets weekly to share their experiences as incarcerated fathers, and the Spirituality Project, which meets weekly to discuss and debate spirituality and religion, and to support each other and alleviate experiences of isolation and loss through incarceration.

Promotion of gender equality

Additionally, Inside-Out has also aligned itself with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by recognising the necessity of the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Parry says since 2018, they have created a focus on "Women in Corrections", which has resulted in a preliminary needs analysis of female offenders and correctional officers that recognises their unique experiences as a minority population within the correctional environment and has encouraged postgraduate student research and publication thereof.

"So far, this has resulted in identifying a common essential need of access to reproductive health. Inside-Out team members and relevant stakeholders have met with female offenders to understand their needs and facilitate drives for sanitary pads and other essential feminine hygiene contributions."

M&Ds registering for corrections-related studies

Regarding the project’s scholarship, Parry says that during the founding phase of Inside-Out, corrections-related studies were primarily identified as part of the social justice and inclusion research areas in the Department of Psychology. Subsequent to the birth of this initiative, there has been a marked increase in the number of master’s and doctoral (M&D) students registering for corrections-related studies.

"In 2019 alone, Inside-Out team members published two articles, supervised the completion of several M&D dissertations and registered fourteen more M&D corrections-related studies for 2020. From this, one can see that research forms an integral part of Inside-Out, and we take pride in the dedication and enthusiasm displayed in the research activities involving our members."

Online participatory initiatives

Addressing the impact that Covid-19 and the South African lockdown has had on the project, Parry says that the pandemic has, as with most other South African communities, hit the correctional environment hard by exacerbating issues, such as overcrowding and seclusion, that were challenging even before the outbreak. "Obviously, the national lockdown has also affected our ability to get out there and be involved in our usual activities on the inside of correctional facilities."

However, she says they are lucky that Inside-Out was in dialogue with, and engaging stakeholders and community members online for some time before the Covid-19 outbreak. "We had already developed online resources that are effective and diverse forms of online participatory initiatives, as recognised by the Humanities and Social Sciences Awards in 2018, where we were runner up in the Best Digital Humanities Project for Community Engagement category. These resources include a blog on our website, a WhatsApp group and a Facebook page. We also created our own open educational resource (OER), the Inside-Out Wiki page, where Inside-Out members develop and encourage knowledge of and research in corrections, while building networks and creating bonds between stakeholders."

Parry adds: "We also see the challenges faced by CE projects during the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to find new and meaningful ways of interacting safely with corrections community members. We are currently looking to develop a series of workshops that can be viewed online, with long-term goals of creating online resources such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are informative and constructive for members of the correctional environment."

She concludes by saying that the Inside-Out team’s thoughts are with everyone affected by Covid-19 and that despite the uncertainties during this period, what is clear is that the battle against the pandemic remains a collective responsibility. Parry says the team remains available for online communication with the community via their website and their Facebook page. She encourages people to reach out to them using these platforms.

* By Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester, Communications and Marketing Specialist, College of Human Sciences

Publish date: 2020/07/05