Education from the Inside Out
The students file through a metal detector. They submit IDs, sign a ledger, have their hands stamped and receive plastic bracelets. Past a handful of prison guards in the security area, they stroll down a long hallway. Other corridors housing prison cells flank its sides. Those incarcerated linger in the corridor and glance occasionally at the students, but these visitors are regulars. Each Tuesday night at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford, students arrive for class.
Temple students have been taking classes in such facilities for more than 16 years, ever since Department of Criminal Justice Instructor Lori Pompa took her class to visit the State Correctional Institution at Dallas, Pa., in 1995. Following a panel discussion there, she met Paul, a man serving a life sentence. Inspired by the discussion, Paul envisioned an environment where the incarcerated could share ideas with students on a weekly basis. Within two years, Pompa had launched the Inside‐Out Prison Exchange Program as a class in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple. She has been holding classes at Graterford since 2002. (Paul was transferred to Graterford by that time and remains involved in the program.)
Since those beginnings, Inside‐Out has become an international educational model, with 480 teachers from more than 200 colleges and universities in 38 states, three Canadian provinces, Australia, Denmark and the U.K. trained as program instructors. Pompa estimates that approximately 18,000 students have taken the class.
Through Inside‐Out´s flagship program at Temple, between 15 and 18 “inside” students—the imprisoned—and the same number of “outside” students—the undergraduates—meet once a week behind Graterford´s imposing walls. They only know each other´s first names. Outside students do not know the nature of their inside counterparts´ convictions.
They sit in a circle in alternating seats: one inside student, one outside student and so on. Facilitated by Pompa, the classmates discuss crime, social justice, recidivism (repeated incarceration) and more.
Inside‐Out has taught me a lot in a very short period of time. If one in 100 people is incarcerated, it affects a great deal of us, either directly or through the imprisonment of loved ones. Since that is the case, I want people to understand the realities of incarceration and its minimal effect on crime prevention.
Inside‐Out not only underscores the realities of criminal‐justice issues for outside students; it gives inside students opportunities for academic rigor. Additionally, it explodes stereotypes surrounding prisoners and college students alike, challenges concepts of race and class privilege, and personalizes experiences both penal and academic.
Over the course of a month during the fall semester, three students in the Class of 2014 wrote for Temple about their experiences at Graterford.
Matthew: The first day of Inside‐Out is much like the first day of school. It´s not unusual to be anxious, wondering how the teacher is going to be, how the workload for the class will pan out and who your fellow classmates will be. The one obvious difference is that in Inside‐Out, half the class is incarcerated. At first, thinking that I would be spending one night per week in a prison was a little intimidating.
Getting through security was an ordeal in itself, but once we were in, there was no turning back. Walking down the long hallway to the back of the prison, past the cell‐blocks, I observed the incarcerated men and the guards, and I realized we were entering their home.
Turning the corner into the classroom quelled my anxiety. I saw about 15 men sitting at their desks, smiling. Everyone wanted to talk with us, meet us—and they wanted us to get to know them, as well. Though the Graterford uniform is an obvious reminder of who they are in that setting, it no longer felt as if we were in a prison.
Eric: During the introductory exercise, I felt a combination of timidity, mild anxiety and fear. The outside students sat in an inner circle facing a rotating outer circle of inside students, and we were asked various questions to get to know one another.
I was cautious in what I said to my first partner in the exercise; I did not want to offend him or say anything demeaning. I was not afraid of the man sitting across from me—I was more concerned with how I would come off to him. However, I realized quickly how ridiculous my hesitation was, and my self‐created awkwardness disappeared. The excitement and spirit of the inside students made the introductions more comfortable and easy‐going than I would have expected.
Yadi: There is no clock in our classroom. I don't wear my watch, because I like to think that time stops during our 2 1/2 hours together. We have to be told multiple times to bring our discussions to an end, because we always have more to discuss.
Matthew: I've gotten comfortable with my classmates fairly quickly—there is too much honesty being thrown around for anything less. The way the class is conducted promotes dialogue: We sit in a big circle and our instructor facilitates discussions. We often break into small groups, but generally we come back to the large circle at the end and reflect on the subject. Whether the topic is the correctional system, law enforcement, punishment or rehabilitation, many opinions are shared.
It gets to the point where we kind of forget that it´s a class. Yes, there are assigned readings and papers, but the subjects of our discussions actually matter. I don't mean to downplay other academic subjects, I only mean that there is value in discussing issues that are real and affect the lives of others. When we create a space in which everyone can be honest with each other, it´s hard not to look at things differently.
Yadi: We spent most of the class in silence. We were asked to think about how we feel when we witness someone being harmed, when we harm someone and when we are harmed.
Themes such as hurt, unworthiness and regret kept coming up—not only as descriptions of how we felt when we were harmed, but also of when we harmed or witnessed someone else causing harm. Both “victim” and “perpetrator” felt the same kinds of things. People who commit crimes are still human and subject to human feelings.
Lori also asked us what we lose both as those who are hurt and those who cause hurt. Then, themes such as self‐worth, innocence and dignity surfaced.
In the grand scheme of things, we are all victims. Because of that, it is important that we all receive help after being harmed. And, it is equally important that the person who committed the crime receive help, so that he or she will not want to commit another crime. To act as though only one part of the equation is affected is an injustice. We are all hurt by hurt.
Yadi: Inside‐Out has taught me a lot in a very short period of time. If one in 100 people is incarcerated, it affects a great deal of us, either directly or through the imprisonment of loved ones. Since that is the case, I want people to understand the realities of incarceration and its minimal effect on crime prevention.
Statistically speaking, 95 percent of people in prison will re‐enter society. One of the biggest problems we've addressed has been that successful re‐entry is damn near impossible. Often, government assistance is unavailable to ex‐cons, which leaves them unable to find help with food and shelter.
An inside student named Ron did some research and discovered some places that help the formerly imprisoned with food and clothes, but many incarcerated people are unaware of them. If they have help, they are less likely to resort to crime as a means of support. The recidivism rate is such that two in three ex‐cons will reoffend and return to jail. It is easy to say those numbers speak to their own failures, but I'd say they speak to society´s failure to help them become productive citizens.
Matthew: We've covered a lot of material in the time we've spent together in class. We've discussed the institution of prison, and crime and the myths and realities that come with it. We've analyzed the criminal‐justice system from almost every angle. We've compared and contrasted punishment and rehabilitation. We've connected victimization and restorative justice. Currently, we're exploring issues associated with re‐entry into society. I think that last conversation is what really matters. The ultimate goal of incarcerated individuals is to get out and stay out if their sentences don't hold them for life. But even then, many of the so‐called “lifers” take strides to improve their situations through productive activities.
I think the toughest part about imprisonment is holding on to your identity. People often find it easy to strip away one´s identity and replace it with the label of “criminal.” Meeting my classmates and having meaningful interactions with them has shown me the resilience that exists within us all.
Everyone has slipups, even horrible ones, but does that give anyone the right to remind us constantly of our faults? I´m sure each of us would wind up behind bars if laws against jaywalking, underage drinking and littering were enforced as strongly as laws against other crimes are. The reality is, we can all learn from our mistakes. The problem comes when we forbid others the right to recover from their faults.
I think one of the best things about the Inside‐Out Prison Exchange is that ignorance is essentially eliminated in the outside participants, such as myself. The program teaches us not only to improve the ways we think about ourselves but also to improve the ways we think about others, regardless of sex, race or religion, or their choices and the ensuing predicaments.
I am extremely grateful for having had this opportunity—knowing that I could be a part of something meaningful in a world where things don't always make sense.
An inside student named Malik shares his perspective on the Inside‐Out Prison Exchange Program, a class in the Department of Criminal Justice that has become an international educational model.
I took this class because I wanted to challenge myself with something new. I didn't know what the class was about, but the words “criminal justice” stuck out to me.
When I received my papers back and saw that my grades were good, it made me want to continue having the opportunity to learn in a school setting. I truly wish the class had been five days per week, because I always counted the days until I went back.
The things I learned—why crime happens, rehabilitation, punishment and more—have made me want to be a part of the solution. I have to be proactive in making a successful re‐entry into my community.
Experience is the only way a person can have an effective understanding of what really takes place behind prison walls. The outside students didn´t make me feel different from them, and I applaud each and every one of them for their unbiased, open‐minded way of being. I did not feel incarcerated in class—I felt like I was free. I´m going to be sure to gather information so that when I am released I can enroll in the Community College of Philadelphia.