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Bringing inside voices out
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 11/19/2007

Chairs Class is in session at Michigan’s Ryan Correctional Facility and Professor Lora Lempert couldn’t be happier. The University of Michigan-Dearborn professor is one of more than 100 college professors around the United States taking their students into a prison or jail for the semester as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program. These "outside students" don’t enter the facilities simply to take their class in a different environment. Once there, they meet their "inside student" counterparts: incarcerated men and women who are taking the same class.

“I can’t even begin to articulate how incredible the class has been,” Lempert says, the excitement clear in her voice. “The students have on every level surpassed my hope for what it could be.”

Praise for this glowing is something Inside-Out founder Lori Pompa has gotten used to hearing. Using a Soros Justice Fellowship, the Temple University professor brought her unique education initiative to the national stage in 2004 with her first open instructor training. Since then, she’s trained 130 professors from 90 colleges and 33 states, and even one from Norway, on how to run an Inside-Out classroom.

“The idea is to turn how people think of things inside out, to bring some of the voices on the inside out,” Pompa explains.

Classes offered range from Dostoevsky seminars to economics theory, although a majority of them tackle subjects of race, class, and the criminal justice system. The incarcerated students get to experience a college class and the college students get to put a “real world” context into what they’ve been learning at school. According to participants, the class is much more than just different people exchanging different viewpoints.

“This experience does something to people,” Pompa says. “A word that often gets used at the end of a semester is ‘transformative,’ and I am amazed at the number of people who say ‘this changed my life.’”

Before the students get to that point there are several hurdles to clear, not to mention a whole lot of ice to break. In the first week, the two groups do not even meet. The professor meets with them separately to explain the expectations and to address any anxieties and questions students may have. For safety reasons, students will only know each other by first name, and contact outside of the classroom is strictly prohibited.

“We have extremely strict parameters around this program,” adds Pompa. “Our rules are often stricter than the prison’s rules. Including this semester, we will have run 120 classes around the country, and we’ve never had a problem.”

Even though students typically approach the class thinking they have nothing in common, friendships do form. Lempert has found it tough to get her students out the door once their time is up.

“These folks have really bonded,” says Lempert. “The end of the class is very painful, because they have created friendships that can occur only in that three hour period each week.”

The students may form tight bonds, but the classes are also about getting into some serious dialogue, and the courses can be very rigorous.

“This is not a touchy-feely experience. We are wrestling with issues from which all of us could learn about ourselves and learn about ourselves in relation to society as possible agents of change,” Pompa stresses.

She presents ‘deceptively simple’ questions, for example, regarding what prisons are for and why people commit crime.

“Imagine yourself in that situation,” Pompa says. “Invariably, the outside students are kind of quiet because they make the assumption that they don’t have a perspective because they haven’t been there. It’s almost like part of the assumption is if you’ve been in prison you know everything there is to know.”

Breaking down these assumptions and misperceptions are a big part of Inside-Out.

“Part of the program is demythologizing who’s inside prison," Pompa adds. "The images given by the media make people on the inside out to be something other than they are. Outside students end up meeting human beings very much like themselves."

The program’s years of success and rave reviews are rooted in a firm philosophy that Pompa ensures every classroom follows.

“We are not bringing college students into the prison to help the inmates or to study them,” she says. “The key of this whole thing is dialogue. It is about everyone in that room having an equal voice and we all bring whatever is in our context to the table.”

After bringing at least 10,000 students into state prisons and county jails, this semester Pompa is taking time off from teaching to write a book about what the program is all about.

“Fundamentally, Inside-Out is about social change,” Pompa says. “I like using the image of prison walls: I think the walls are an external manifestation of many of the walls we have between us as human beings. My hope is by this exchange, the walls become more permeable because of the dialogue we create.”

Related Resources:

Learn more about Inside-Out

Information about the SOROS grant

Read “College goes to prison” by the Detroit Free Press


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