by Derek Gilna
In 1997, Temple University professor Lori Pompa instituted a ground-breaking program at a Philadelphia county jail known as the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings university students and prisoners together in a correctional setting to discuss criminal justice and other academic issues. From that modest start, the program has expanded to 150 jails and prisons worldwide, involving more than 30,000 participants on the inside and outside.
Temple participants gathered in October 2017 for a celebration of the program’s 20-year milestone, in events held at both the university and Graterford Prison. Professor Pompa thinks the program has had an impact in terms of educating the general public about the bloated U.S. corrections system, stating, “Our levels of incarceration have to some extent been allowed to get so out of control because the vast majority of people don’t know what’s happening. It’s how change happens in the world, it’s almost one person at a time. So we’re multiplying those persons.”
Pompas’ first job within the prison system was as a tutor at the now-closed Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia; she later taught classes about corrections, and brought students to tour the facility and interact with prisoners.
“It was very Medieval-looking, dark, dingy, dirty, and loud, and hundreds of men were in there,” she said. “It was very clear that the majority were men of color, mostly African American. I saw right away the waste of humanity.”
In 1995, a particularly engaging conversation between students and prisoners at the Dallas Prison sparked a comment from one of the prisoners, who asked, “Have you ever thought of doing this over the course of a semester?” Two years later, the Inside-Out program was launched at the Philadelphia county jail and in 2002 it began at Graterford with the help of former lifer Tyrone Werts, who called the program “transformative.”
Werts said, “A lot of guys, like me, were smart and didn’t know it. So guys would get this educational experience and learn some things about themselves.”
Temple students and their instructors, in turn, found themselves newly motivated about issues related to crime and justice.
The Inside-Out program, which concentrates not on social issues or advocacy but on education, has expanded since its founding – hosting 52 training sessions, and training over 800 instructors from 350 colleges and universities in 10 countries, including Mexico, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil.
More than 100 colleges and universities have instituted Inside-Out programs; for example, it is offered at Arizona State University, the University of Georgia, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Maine.
“The entire experience was transformative in many ways: the model teaching units and discussions with peers provided new, crucial angles from which to think about my research and teaching on the carceral state and the experiences of incarcerated individuals,” stated Prof. Ruby Tapia at the University of Michigan.
According to Werts, who was granted a commutation and now works for Inside-Out, “People on the outside think the inmates are monsters behind the walls, because that’s what they’re being fed in TV and movies. And guys on the inside feel that [the students are] privileged white kids coming to study us like animals in a zoo.” However, those perceptions change once they meet. “They realize they’re all people. We’re all just humans who are trying to make it in the world.”
Sources: www.philly.com, www.templeupdate.com, www.insideoutcenter.org
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