“Inside-Out” is a “right-side up” approach to prison education

Some years ago an inmate at SCI Gratford Prison Pennsylvania conceived of an entirely new approach to prison education, designed not only to enlighten its participants intellectually, but socially as well. Through its implementation it’s succeeded in providing prisoners with hope, and breaking down barriers between social groups.

Called “Inside-Out classes,” an inmate by the name of Paul (last name withheld), the programs operate by inviting college students to participate in courses held inside prison walls.  Paul, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for a gang-related stabbing, conceived of the idea in 1997: “ He envisioned a space where the two groups could maintain an ongoing dialogue and delve into the root issues of crime together, where individuals could ask questions, address stereotypes, and examine criminal justice literature – in the context of honesty, authenticity, and trust.” They operate as an exchange program of sorts, where instead of students going to another country, they study in another world, as it were. To that effect, once a week, college and prison students meet inside the prison to share their insights and ideas, and work together on term projects.

Since I first began to observe Inside-Out programs when writing College for Convicts, their popularity and importance has been steadily growing, to the extent that they’ve expanded beyond national borders. Several courses have been implemented in Canada, plans are underway for customizing training across the country, and training of individuals from Norway, Ireland, the UK, South Africa, and Australia have also begun.

What makes these so important and so effective, is the way they promote dialogue and through that dialogue, deepened understanding of a variety of social, economic, and political topics.

The impact such courses have on participants on both sides is immeasurable. Inside and outside students are able to relate to one another without the bias of media lenses, bias, and socially constructed perceptions of one another. Outside students gain insight into the complexity of reasons behind incarcerations, and the systemic machinations that lead many of them to find themselves in that position. Inside students are able to interact and connect directly with other students, and grow to understand the opportunities education may afford them and know that they will be represented passionately and truthfully on the outside.

Outside students’ understandings of the prison experience are also challenged. There is no candy-coated view of what it means to be in prison, and students who may have grown up with the view that it’s an “easy ride” with free room and board have the opportunity to look behind the curtain. Similarly, they are privy to the emotional toll of imprisonment and the added impact this has on prisoners’ lives. 

Uncharacteristically, availability of Inside-Out programming to women is high—especially important given the relative paucity of prison education programs in women’s prisons.  The educational needs of incarcerated women are unmet even more often than they are for men, which is particularly problematic given that many of these prisoners will need to provide for children upon release.

This model has proved to be so effective that it’s also being expanded to promote dialogue and communication between other at-risk or marginalized groups in settings like homeless shelters, halfway houses, and domestic abuse shelters. 

While other prison education programs have suffered from unrelenting government cutbacks, Inside-Out classes have been better able to weather the retrenchment storm through their reliance on private donations and university contributions. But in the long-term, such dependence may be unsustainable. As such, I would urge institutions to start looking at forging partnerships with universities and colleges willing to participate in training and implementation, because even law enforcement officials involved are testifying to their effectiveness. But at the end of the day, aside from the educational opportunities these sessions afford, it provides its participants with lessons in empathy and compassion that is an absent guest in most classrooms of today. 

The University of Oregon is one of the main providers of these programs, and several journalism students created a short documentary on their impact. You can view it here: 

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