Last week, I got to interview 12 college students from the University of Idaho, about a program they’re participating in here at my prison. It’s a really amazing program called Inside-Out. The article I wrote for the RazorWire (our prison newspaper) is below Hope you all like it (or at least most of you!)
Fears Debunked as Inside-Out Program ‘Making History’ in Idaho
On August 23rd, 12 students from the University of Idaho walked into ICIO carrying their notebooks…and a healthy dose of trepidation and uncertainty. For most, it was their first time inside of a correctional facility. They didn’t know what to expect. These 12 women, from the outside, were about to embark on a three-month journey where inmates would no longer be the scary ferocious beasts so often depicted in the media. On this day, prisoners were about to become their classmates, their partners in learning for a semester, in an avant garde program aptly called Inside-Out.
About to meet their new colleagues for the first time, many inmates began having second thoughts about the program. Inmate C. Bogan worried he might look “stupid” to these sophisticated and intelligent young women. “I still feel like I’m out of my element. I almost want to apologize for my lack of education to my group,” he wrote.
Bogan’s fears were debunked by the college students. “A lot of these men are super intelligent. They have more life experience, too,” said one U of I participant. Another student interjected, “Regardless of your education background, each individual has something new and worthwhile to add to the discussion. No one knows everything. Input from a different perspective is wanted and valued.” That’s the beauty of the Inside-Out program. People with different perspectives — often very different — are able to come together and learn from one another in the most atypical of settings.
“In society, inmates are perceived as scary…bad enough that they were removed from society,” wrote one student about her perceptions prior to starting the class at ICIO. It took courage for these women to sign up. Surprisingly, there were no men enrolled. Were they afraid? “Yes, they were!” joked Alyssa, a student who formerly worked in a parole office.
Friends and family of these women didn’t quite understand why a person would voluntarily enter a prison. Many weren’t very supportive. “I mostly just had to explain it a lot, so they’d understand,” said one student. Another’s parents had a better sense of humor, telling her, “I always knew you’d end up in prison!”
Weeks prior to the start of class, the university students went through a formal training with the Deputy Warden, which exacerbated the anxiety for some. “We were warned about getting close to the inside students because they could touch us, or hurt us, or manipulate us over the course of the semester. None of that is true with these guys. They are very respectful, they keep to themselves, they stick to the class discussion, they don’t get personal in any way,” wrote one student as she reflected on her first two weeks of class.
Inmates were uncomfortable at first, too. “My nerves were at their breaking point,” explained Bogan, “when an outside student offered her hand to shake in introduction. This is a common courtesy in the outside world yet I found myself hesitating where I never would have before.” He worried he might end up in segregation, facing an assault charge, or getting a DOR (disciplinary offense report) for touching one of the participants. But none of those things happened. Bogan did shake her hand. It helped him feel human and worthwhile.
“We are making history here in Idaho. The intertwining of our perspectives opens doors that may have otherwise never existed,” said a participant named Kortni. The participants do bring very diverse backgrounds and perspectives to the ICIO classroom. Some plan to be paralegals. Others plan to spend the rest of their lives in this very prison. One student enrolled in the class mainly because she liked the facilitator and professor, Dr. Omi Hodwitz. But among all participants, there is one common filament: each and every one of them is human — with human feelings, human emotions, and human misconceptions. While they all came together, initially, to discuss the philosophies of social justice from Socrates, Plato, and Thrasymachus, the true lessons learned will likely come not from the course material, but from the experience itself. Students and inmates, together in a classroom. No textbook can teach that.