Scholarship and Practice

Community-as-Method in Prison and College

Joe Stommel

I am writing this as a retiree from Colorado State government with thirty years experience in systems management administration. I also have taught college classes in Psychology over twenty of those years. My expertise was substance abuse programming and mental health. I have worked extensively in intergovernmental planning and program development between institutions with great traditions. I have learned to navigate and critique organizational management. I have learned a lot but I recently turned 70, so I must admit that I’ve gotten a little crabby over the years. But reflecting in this way teaches me something about who I am and who I’ve been. More than anything, I see a kernel of myself that has persisted, and carried with me from my work in the classroom to my work in prisons and now to my work as an online teacher.

In the spring of 2017, I was asked to make a complete course redesign for the second part of Introductory Psychology (PSY 102). I was excited to embark on this creative endeavor. I’d be the lead expert to make this an all new and better course. Decades before I was in charge of developing new “therapeutic communities” for the prison system for the State Department of Corrections. In both cases, I knew there would be issues putting an innovative development into the boundaries of a crudely institutional system. So I was prepared and skilled to anticipate and overcome the hurdles of new development in the college system, just like I had pursued in the prison system. Little did I know that in each of these cases the hurdles would become fortified barricades, like thick prison walls.

I have been teaching PSY 102 for nine years online and had previously taught for six years in a face-to-face community college classroom back in the 80s. I had a vision of what the learning process might be in a class like this. I had shed traditional notions of read the book and take the test. Instead, I designed a multimedia and multi-dimensional learning experience, much of it self-guided by the student in an interactive community of learners.

My instinct was to reduce the emphasis on individual reading and individual testing, just absorbing someone else’s so-called knowledge. In the case of my redesign of PSY 102, I knew the course was lacking in self-examination and exploration, interaction with others in a community of learners, and exposure and action in the real world community.

I had a new vision for this class, a balance of some book learning, more self-exploration and group interaction, and a new emphasis on service learning. I wanted to encourage the class to look at current events and complete an experiential learning project. With that vision in mind, I prepared what the college calls “modules” to match up my vision with the various activities in the syllabus.

I first sought to reduce the emphasis on tests and quizzes, but the administration countered with the need for module tests and a final exam as predetermined and immutable requirements. The system (both the technology and processes) was dictating our format. The community college system had undergone a change in administration and with it came new and rigid guidelines for the structure of classes. And, of course, the structure put very specific constraints on the pedagogical possibilities. So required exams were a near ultimatum. But I reduced the points allocated and made exams a smaller part of a more thorough array of course methods. These are the kinds of bureaucratic challenges I had seen as a state administrator, so I was well-prepared for this kind of compromise.

I implemented a system of progressively challenging class discussions where students would first interact supportively with classmates, then participate in community formation, then react to the diverse perspectives of others, and ultimately change one’s thinking and each others’ perspectives through community interaction. But, even here, my design was subject to bureaucratic requirements: I was told I must introduce each discussion with a lengthy prompt. That I must provide three or four documents of “topic exploration” before the discussion segment could begin. While I was trying to move toward less solitary reading, less content dissemination, the administration required that I provide more and more of these. They had applauded my innovative vision, but in action were requiring more adherence to standards.

The administration was worried about inconsistencies among instructors and course implementation, so every new course needed to be tighter and more structured into boxes of required content. This was at direct odds with a move across the community college system to make courses more human, more alive to the needs of their diverse student populations. There was indeed a tension between a desire to innovate and to assure that innovation didn’t ignore the needs of real students.

For the new PSY 102, even something as simple (and pedagogically sound) as replacing research papers with service learning projects was put under scrutiny. I could do it, I was told, but I’d still have to also run students through the gauntlet of a research paper.

“But the goal of this course is not to teach research paper writing.”

“Okay,” the administration responded, ”you can reduce the research requirement by half and each report submission for the experiential learning project has to be graded by a complicated rubric scaling their score from 0 – 75 points.”

It was clear that the more I implemented my vision of a new format, the more I was crashing against an incredibly backwards set of design parameters.

“This is the way we have to do things.”

No discussion.

I distinctly remember a similar narrative from when I implemented therapeutic community (TC) treatment programs in the State prison system. In the 90s, therapeutic communities were becoming the most highly researched and effective approach for drug-addicted inmates. They grew out of the self-help movement to provide a comprehensive and intensive prison program removed from other inmates and using an innovative practice called “community-as-method.” As I wrote in “Correctional Pedagogy: Prison Reform and Life-or-Death Learning” (2014): “[Therapeutic communities] encourage simple and necessary values for good citizenship—honesty, accountability, work ethic, and community responsibility.”

The therapeutic community is designed as an intensive 24/7 program of living a new and responsible life with ongoing support, encouragement and correction by fellow residents. Morning meetings were daily inspiration sessions led by residents as were the group therapy sessions. Behavioral improvement used a system of what we called “pull-ups” by fellow residents as reminders of improved behaviors, followed by learning experiences agreed upon with senior residents. The philosophy is based on a community-learning model of addiction recovery and responsible living that is staff-led but implemented by the community members themselves. The community itself is seen as the vehicle for change in the prisoners’ lives.

Correctional officers overseeing the residence units were forward-looking in their unanimous vocal support in how well the TC units were self-managed by participant members of the program. The belief that inmates should not be running the cell block was revealed to be nothing but a misconception and a misguided fear. Just like students leading discussions in college classes should not be seen as less than instructors, the best group therapists in TC encounters were the inmate participants, not the therapists.

Whereas a therapeutic community is a separate living unit designed to keep the program residents away from a negative prison environment, the conventional prison system is set up to discourage self-efficacy, self-management, and participant-driven community. When implementing a new and intensive program there was always the perceived conflict with the main mission of the prison system: to keep the inmates quiet, controlled, and secure. So at each proposed program implementation the mission of ‘security’ and conforming to long standing day to day operations would take precedence. The prison subverts success if they adapt a wing or unit to accommodate the program but then require many other daily activities mixed with the general population. In this case, meals and recreation times would be mixed with other inmates who would harass the TC members as coddled or “square” or “submissive to the man.”

There were elements of a TC approach that didn’t fit in a traditional prison environment.

Fortunately, inspiring leaders were able to convince the system to bend. A number of separate units were set aside. TC activities were mostly kept apart from the general population. A new work site was designed for program participants. Correctional officers were recruited to take a thoughtful security stance that supported the communal behavior management of the TC. These real innovations took hold, and these new programs were found in a five-year federal research study to result in the highest reductions in participant relapse and recidivism (Sacks,, 2010).

In both my experience with the community college online system and with the State Prison system, each step of the development process showed the philosophical support for, but also enormous bureaucratic resistance to, changing any of the fixtures of the institution. The idea that “our prisons must be schools” has a corollary, that “our schools cannot be prisons.” (Stommel 2014). But this is what I faced when attempting to innovate. The prison walls that hold people inside and block interaction with the outside world are similar to the college system walls of instructional requirements that often cannot be breached for the sake of authentic experiential learning.

As I worked to design a new PSY102, I experienced almost daily stress, feeling constantly that I had to justify my methods and every innovation I was advocating for. Again, the seemingly simple pedagogical moves I was making were scrutinized in absurd ways. And the responses were erratic.

  • When I wanted 20 simple pass-fail tasks, the college wanted elaborate evaluation rubrics with five scalable items for each.
  • I asked for original written content to be shorter and geared toward student participation and personal exploration. This was accepted.
  • When I wanted to de-emphasize module tests and the final exam, this was met with strong resistance. But a system was devised by my Department Chair to have open-book exams.
  • The interpretation of federal requirements about public work and access were not nuanced. And where my design required additional support for accessibility, no help was offered by Instructional Design, only limits.
  • The college system had previously used a system encouraging “student-led discussions” that I found now had to have special authorization.

Each of my pedagogical approaches tested or stretched a very rigid set of boundaries. But I found that with some sensible pressure, the walls could be breached.

Organizational change requires a recognition of the distinction between verbal support and active support. Verbal support disguises itself as positive when it is usually neutral and often turns out to be negative. Active support involves sustained effort toward a cause or plan. Without active support, little can get done within a system. Fortunately, my department chair was helpful in my course design and offered meaningful, active support. He intervened frequently to soften some of the rigid requirements, and he provided a vote of confidence.

Most of my course revision was accepted, and my vision found its way into a very worthy final product in the Fall semester 2017. (And that course now continues to be taught by myself and many other instructors in the program.) The students embraced the additional discussion emphasis and experiential learning project with genuinely advanced work and wonderful accomplishments in service learning. The Department Chair nominated me to receive the annual Instructional Excellence Award in Behavioral Sciences.


I have learned about leadership over the years that you provide enthusiastic vision and communicate it clearly. But beyond that someone in a leadership role must recognize the assets and strengths they do not possess and cannot impose. Instead, they must find those strengths in peak contributors, the culture carriers of an organization. In spite of all the obstacles I faced, I found those in my chair, the instructors who handled the first iteration of the course and, and in the peers in the community of learners we call the class.

What the work of this course has become depends on the community who now inhabits it. That is truly what community-as-method is all about.


Sacks, S., McKendrick, K., Sacks, J.Y., & Cleland, C. (2010). Modified therapeutic community for co-occurring disorders: Single investigator meta-analysis. Substance Abuse, 31(3), 146-161.

Stommel, J. (2020). Correctional pedagogy: Prison reform and life-or-death learning. Hybrid Pedagogy, June 21.


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Voices of Practice by Joe Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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