An innovative learning program that brings together incarcerated and traditional students is breaking down barriers and giving meaningful and transformative learning experiences to all involved.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (IOPE) is a national initiative that launched nearly 20 years ago. This program brings together inmates with non-inmates, and the unique mix of students spend a semester taking one of a number of course choices within the prison walls.
Professors undergo special training to teach courses in the Inside-Out program. One of those teachers is Micol Seigel, an associate professor in the IU’s department of American studies and department of history. Although Seigel has taught IOPE for seven years, she recently taught her first course in the Indiana Women’s Prison.
IOPE courses are varied, and can include writing and theatre. Seigel choose to do a course on the history of prison. Thanks to the Indiana Women’s Prison’s existing college program, the incarcerated women that successfully took Siegel’s IOPE course received credit through Holy Cross College.
“We bear this weight of assumption about prisons and people in prison. We assume they are monsters,” Seigel said in an interview about her time at the women’s prison.
“Non-incarcerated students often come to see the tremendous injustices of the legal system through this course. Many of their inside classmates are in prison for doing the exact same things many college students do every weekend, but in overpoliced neighborhoods and from hyper-incarcerated communities. They see the disproportionate enforcement of the law against people of color and the criminalization of poverty. All of this challenges the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ sense.”
The traditional students find a lot of value in the program. One praised the opportunity to meet with incarcerated women and study alongside with them, stating “normally we wouldn’t have access to one another.”
One of the “outside” students was attending the course in Indiana as a visiting guest from Germany. She was so inspired by what she saw, learned and experienced, that she left with plans to conduct research about her own country’s prison history.
In Seigel’s course, the students’ final project was to create something that represented the theme of social divide. The group’s results were varied and impressive.
One team created a magazine that showcased the artistic talents of incarcerated women. Another team created a radio show that got air time on WFHB’S Kite Line. The hosts discussed the prison’s system legal and political history, and shared some of the women’s personal experiences.
It didn’t matter which student was from the “inside” and which student was from the “outside,” each experienced an internal shift through taking the course, first by meeting with a group of women that vastly differed from their life on the inside/outside, and secondly by delving into a system fraught with issues that remain unresolved. In addition to the academics gained, both sides ended the course with a much deeper understanding of the other, and a much clearer look at how the American prison system functions.
“I think that mass incarceration is the most consequential domestic disaster of our day. It licenses us to be afraid of each other and paranoid on the streets,” Seigel said. “I am willing to go quite far out of my way to do anything I can as a scholar and a professor to make people understand the system better.”
Education for incarcerated women is vital to rehabilitation, and programs like IOPE provide more than just college credit. They provide a deeper understanding between women in jail and women outside of the jail walls — an understanding that is crucial for those incarcerated women who will eventually re-enter society.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.