Stony Mountain Institution: Co-Operative Learning Leads to Sense of Community


By: Tim Phillips, Inderjit Sandhu and Corinne Lindley (SMI Education team);

On January 20, 2022, Tam Le, a minimum security offender at Stony Mountain Institution, participated in a virtual Walls to Bridges symposium. Tam was not just an observer of the Zoom symposium, though. He was one of the presenters who discussed a study he had coauthored with university professor Dr. Judith Harris.

The symposium, Holistic Learning and Collective Action, was part of a 10-year anniversary celebration of the Walls To Bridges (W2B) program—an educational program in which incarcerated and non-incarcerated students study university and college courses in correctional facilities across Canada. All participants in the class are peers. The students from outside the correctional system are not ‘mentoring’ or ‘helping’ the incarcerated students, but learning with them through innovative, experiential, and dialogical processes. Experiential learning is foundational to the W2B teaching and learning process.

Tam was the only student at the symposium who presented from inside a CSC institution. The event was attended by 75 W2B alumni and instructors from Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba, as well as members of the public. Participants discussed the classroom experiences and the role of emotions, challenges, and collaboration in the W2B pedagogical practice.

At Stony Mountain Institution, W2B partners with the University of Winnipeg. Eight instructors are trained in the W2B program from collaborating departments of Conflict Resolution, Criminal Justice, English, and Urban and Inner-City Studies departments. The University of Winnipeg has completed 11 courses at Stony Mountain, with another currently in progress. The University of Winnipeg plans to offer a Walls To Bridges Certificate to offenders after students have completed 30 credit hours of core and elective courses. The university is hoping to offer courses again soon, as well as increase the number of courses and offer them to more students. After COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the University of Winnipeg will return to traditional W2B in-person classes, mixing incarcerated and non-incarcerated students in the course delivery at Stony Mountain Institution.

Dr. Judith Harris, the University of Winnipeg W2B coordinator, and Tam co-authored a paper called Humane Alternatives: Co-op Education at Stony Mountain Institution published in the Journal of Co-operative Studies. (Vol. 54(2): 31-44) This case study was a collaborative investigation by Tam and Dr. Harris, who reported options for establishing educational co-operatives inside Stony Mountain Institution. Tam brought essential insight with his experiential knowledge of the values and behaviours found within the prison population. Tam and Dr. Harris advocate that the development of educational co-operatives, which are co-created by offenders, would have wider benefits and would orient the culture of the institution to being more inline with community corrections. They believe educational co-operatives would help prepare offenders for their reintegration into society.

Both Tam and Dr. Harris presented a PowerPoint of their case study at the symposium and answered participants’ questions afterwards. Tam said he was nervous during the presentation. He prepared in advance by reading the slides over and over, and practiced the presentation with his family over the phone. He also had help from Dr. Harris, Correctional Educator Inderjit Sandhu, and the unwavering support of Warden Janalee Bell-Boychuk, who also attended the symposium.

Stony Mountain Institution Warden Janalee Bell-Boychuk and Tam Le.

Image Caption: Stony Mountain Institution Warden Janalee Bell-Boychuk and Tam Le.

Tam shared that he is the first person in his family to attend university. His ultimate goal is to get a degree in a “helping” field, such as counselling, teaching, or health care. He is currently part of the Peer Offenders Prevention Service (POPS) at Stony Mountain Institution.

He sees that his role in POPS is to help fellow offenders during times of crisis and by being a positive role model amongst the offender community.

As a student, Tam has appreciated the W2B program because it allows him to attend university. He said it, “Gives us a chance to share our stories with the non-incarcerated students, and we all learn how compassion helps stop stigmas.”

He also noted that students also learn to communicate more respectfully. It gives them a sense of self worth and self-esteem, by having an equal voice with the non-incarcerated students when discussing world issues, common values and principles. This builds the students’ confidence and the skills needed for rehabilitation back into society. “It helps with our mental health, especially because the writing we do focuses on describing our emotions and thoughts,” said Tam. “It’s like a type of therapy, and helps us understand what community really means and how to be kind without having ulterior motives.”

Tam noted it was an honour to present the paper at the W2B 10th anniversary Zoom symposium with Dr. Harris. In the future, Tam indicated that he will take any opportunity he can to speak positively about W2B and Stony Mountain Institution. He believes they both have made him become a better person.

For more information about the W2B program, please visit:

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