Below is the rough draft of an article I wrote today for the RazorWire, our monthly prison newspaper. The final draft will change somewhat. It’s about the Inside-Out program, where 12 college students from a nearby university take a semester-long class, here at the prison, alongside 12 inmate students. A pretty interesting read (if I do say so myself). Details below…
Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program
ICIO Students, U of I Students, Together in a Classroom by S. Newman
It used to be, back in the 1990s, that if a college student was interested in criminal justice, she could read a textbook, watch a movie like “The Shawshank Redemption,” perhaps even tour Idaho’s old penitentiary.
It also used to be, back in those same 1990s, that if an inmate wanted to share his views with those on the outside, or learn from them…well, he could write a letter. Maybe someone would read it.
Times have changed. Today, thanks to the efforts of a Pensylvania college professor named Lori Pompa, barriers have been broken. Her “Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program” brings together campus-based college students with incaracerated students for semester-long courses held in prisons and jails. Students from the inside and outside sit together, in a classroom, and take college courses on subjects ranging from criminal justice to social sciences to humanities to the arts. To date, over 30,000 students have participated in classes taught by over 800 instructors, at over 150 prisons worldwide. In August, ICIO will be added to that list of prisons (thanks to a partnership with the University of Idaho).
According to the program’s website, “Our society is strengthened when higher education and learning is made widely accessible and…when it allows participants to encounter each other as equals, often across profound social barriers.” Courses inspire civic engagement and human connection. Students learn by building a community across social differences. They gain first-hand knowledge on topics such as restorative justice, conflict resolution, and racial inequality. Classes ignite enthusiasm for learning and help students find their voice and generate social change.
The program wasn’t born overnight. Today, it’s an international network of faculty, students, inmates, and administrators, all deeply committed to social justice issues. To get there, though, it has taken Pompa over 30 years of unremitting dedication and effort.
In the 1980s, Pompa volunteered as a tutor at a Pennsylvania prison. “It was medieval looking, dark, dirty, and loud,” she said. “I thought, ‘what is this that we’re doing to inmates?’ I saw right away the waste of humanity.”
Later, Temple University hired her to teach courses about corrections, so she began bringing classes to tour prison facilities and meet with inmates. “The conversations were amazing. No one wanted it to end,” she said. An inmate suggested that instead of just doing this once, that she do it for a full semester. Neither the inmate nor Pompa knew, at the time, that this seemingly mundane suggestion would be the catalyst for what the Inside-Out program would one day become.
Mandy Sipple, manager at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, in Pennsylvania was impressed by a class called “Drugs and Society.” “The class had a positive and hopeful effect on the inmate participants, while the college students have voiced a new and unexpected respect for inmates,” Sipple said.
Perhaps one instructor put it best: “There is a power in the collective actions of good people. Inside-Out lets us find the source of that power. We change the world one class at a time.”
Watch for information on your housing unit, and in a future edition of the RazorWire, about how you can participate in a semester of Inside-Out…coming in August to the Robert Janss School at ICIO.
Stephen Newman has been Editor-In-Chief of the RazorWire since November, 2017 (when the editor before him went to the hole for cheeking his meds). He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Categories: Stephen Newman