education / prison / social justice

Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program

by Simone Davis

Prison bars are meant to keep people in; they also keep people out. Along with the other social forces that keep us divided, the tall walls and razor wire fences of prisons and jails ensure that our internalized maps of what we consider home are distorted, pitted with blanks. These blind spots and alienations don’t just impoverish us; they make it possible for the status quo to trundle on unimpeded.

With our sense of connection, community, place and identity all skewed, our ability to function as political agents on behalf of change is severely limited. Here are some comments about the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which seeks to chip away at the conceptual walls, at least, that our carceral system throws up.

Inside-Out is a U.S.-based, newly-international pedagogical project offering semester-long, college-level classes behind bars to groups of students, half of whom are incarcerated and half of whom are college students from “outside.” One function of Inside-Out is simply to provide a way to reintroduce college work to people in prison or jail. Since 1994, when Pell grants for individuals in prison were repealed, educational programming behind bars has been severely curtailed in the U.S.. Perhaps even more fundamental, these courses invite a working community to form amongst members who might otherwise never meet: lines of class, race and social abjection are crossed as students work together over time on a common pursuit. Course themes most often focus on the study of some aspect of our society’s approach to crime and punishment. Geographically proximate, only a van-ride apart, participants in an Inside-Out class acknowledge something usually obscured from view: our fates are inextricable and we are already living together, but emphatically not in community.

Normally, stuck in our separate demographic camps, we don’t feel the urgent pull of shared humanity. Potential allegiances and alternative analyses lie dormant. In student feedback from dozens of Inside-Out courses conducted around the U.S., both inside and outside participants keep using the word “transformational.” To make the walls permeable between inside and out is to defy an initial premise of imprisonment, namely, the stigma and segregation of those deemed “criminal.”

One question I’ve asked myself over the last few years I will also pose here. Is this course model an instance of “prison reform,” a palliative improvement that only makes a fundamentally flawed system seem more tolerable and thus sustainable? Or is it closer to a revolutionary gesture, helping to effect a paradigm shift that our society must make if we are to move beyond the prison industrial complex? Watching the classes in action, I have decided it’s the latter.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was founded in 1997 by Lori Pompa, a social worker who teaches in Temple University’s Criminal Justice Department. As she tells the story, the idea for such a semester-long engagement was hatched in the mid-nineties by a chance comment from a man serving a very long sentence; he was part of a panel discussion during a prison tour on which she had brought her class. Each term, she would hold these tours, always arranging that it include a conversation between her students and a group of incarcerated men or women, a chance for them to share ideas and perceptions about the criminal justice system. As one such far-ranging exchange drew to a close, the entire group felt keenly aware that their conversation simply was not over. Paul, on the prison panel, approached her and urged that she offer a semester-long shared class. Lori took his idea as a challenge, a directive. Within two years the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program had begun.

Working first with the Philadelphia jails and then with Graterford Prison, Pompa, eventually joined by one or two colleagues, began to regularly conduct semester-long courses on different aspects of the criminal justice system. The student population would be 50% Temple students and 50% incarcerated students, and the classes were conducted at the correctional facility. This brought higher education behind bars, while for the outside students, merely entering a prison or jail would reveal something about the architecture of power that cannot be fully conceived secondhand.

Pompa writes of the program’s trajectory that, after several years of running Inside-Out courses on her own, “as a 2003 [George] Soros Justice Senior Fellow, [I] collaborated with others on both sides of the prison walls to develop Inside-Out into a national model of transformative pedagogy. To date, more than 200 instructors from more than 100 colleges and universities in 35 states and abroad have taken part in the Inside-Out training, with dozens of Inside-Out classes offered throughout the country each semester.” Fall 2009 marks the first Canadian Inside-Out course, in British Columbia.

Though Pompa and colleagues created the Inside-Out model in the context of teaching criminal justice majors, since the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institutes began, courses have been offered across many disciplines, with participating schools ranging from community colleges to institutions like Amherst College and Vassar. Equally wide-ranging are the sorts of correctional facilities where classes have been conducted, from day reporting centers at county jails to maximum security state prisons, both men’s and women’s facilities.

Using a variety of approaches, some participating colleges have figured out ways to offer credit to inside participants, and it’s a mandate of Inside-Out that this be done as often as possible.

The Inside-Out classes that I’ve conducted so far, in a Northeastern state, were creative writing and literature classes that brought students from the small, all-female liberal arts college where I taught together with women incarcerated in our county. My co-facilitator, Lysette Navarro, herself formerly incarcerated, is a creative writing teacher with a local non-profit that offers creative writing workshops to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.

Teaching these classes has deepened my questions not only about the way we “do” crime and punishment in the United States, but also about the way we conceive and practice another of our central institutional projects, education. Whether critiqued as “cultural capital” or lauded as “money in the bank,” education is often described as something that one acquires and then possesses as an individual, a currency that can buy you benefits, the key to individual social mobility. As a result of my engagement with Inside-Out, I join Paolo Friere, Myles Horton and others, to endorse not only far greater access to education but also its radical reconceptualization: a redefinition that emphasizes community creation and collective purpose rather than individual self-“betterment” and “upward” mobility, one that turns literacy from a noun to a verb, from a possession one acquires and owns into a practice between people. Perhaps we can benefit from thinking of education as part of a gift economy, rather than as cultural capital; we can go further and think of it as contraband.

Lysette remarks: “Inside-Out shows you that your mind and soul still belong to you. And then when that happens, there’s a revolution in the room. You contribute something and speak out yourself, and then all of a sudden, everyone wants to give something, throw something in, you can feel the room shift, the automatic clicking as connections are made…”

Simone Davis
Toronto, Ontario


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