Imagine you are in a formal college and that you have the opportunity to take your classes within prison walls and that your classmates are incarcerated prisoners? The very innovative program The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program through Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study together, as peers, only the college setting is behind prison walls.
Once a week, for an entire semester, 15-18 outside college students attend class in prison with a like number of prisoners. All of the participants, both outside and inside, work together on projects, reading from the same texts, writing the same papers, being equal in all discussion groups and, in the final month of the semester, the students work as one to complete a group class project.
Every human being – whether they reside behind bars or on the outside – has innate worth, a story to tell, experiences to learn from, and is an important and contributing member of the community.
One of the wonderful aspects of this program is that outside college students have a very unique opportunity to truly see what life is like behind prison walls and it is a great opportunity for prisoners to be able to learn from college students attending a premier university and to be able to share their stories.
To quote from the The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program mission statement: “Education in which we are able to encounter each other, especially across profound social barriers, is transformative and allows problems to be approached in new and different ways. Inside-Out’s mission is to create opportunities for people inside and outside of prison to have transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue and that invite them to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern.”
Staff at the Inside-Out Center have specific goals in mind while developing the course curriculums for this unique venture.
• Provide leadership, training, and technical assistance to college and university instructors to create working partnerships between schools and correctional institutions.
• Develop support for the program in prison systems and schools across the country by reaching out to educators and prison administrators. • Advocate for greater educational opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Inside-Out educators also have specific goals.
• Create classroom communities of incarcerated and college students who examine social issues together, so that they may have a challenging and transformative experience of critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and civic engagement.
• Make post-secondary education more available to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women.
• Assist non-incarcerated college students, particularly those pursuing careers in criminal justice and social services, in seeing men and women who have been convicted of crimes as potential partners and leaders in addressing social problems.
• Encourage all participants’ commitment to civic engagement in addressing social problems.
• Encourage each group of Inside-Out students to develop class projects that have the potential to make a difference in the real world.
And alumni from Inside-Outside work diligently to create:
• Organize and participate in ongoing local “think tanks” composed of Inside-Out alumni and instructors who meet regularly inside jail or prison to work on and carry out their own projects.
•The Graterford Think Tank, established in 2002 at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford in Pennsylvania, hosts workshops on issues of crime and justice for members of the local community and advises and partners with the Inside-Out Center in training new instructors and supporting the national program.
• As other think tanks form across the country, a national network of alumni will have the capacity to coordinate larger-scale social change projects.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was founded in 1997 by a prisoner named Paul who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania. His vision was to create an educational space where two divergent groups could create and maintain open dialogues regarding root issues of crime, criminal justice, and through this, hopefully create long-lasting change and advocacy for prisoners and the prison system.
The philosophy of this program has several components and seeks to advance higher education programs in prison that:
1) are broad-based
2) have few barriers to entry from the viewpoint of colleges and instructors
3) are financially self-sustaining
4) attract correctional administrators already convinced of the value of education and who are seeking ways to provide it
5) create a growing constituency of those in community who support prison education
What makes The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program such a unique and special prison education program is the interaction and exchange of college students from the outside and inside prisoner students learning equally and together.