School of Social Work's Inside-Out Prison Exchange Class leads inmates to think about helping others

Written reflections by inmates at the Indianapolis Re-Entry Educational Facility about an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Class showed a new perspective and understanding gained through the class, but their comments at a recent graduation ceremony revealed they were ready to take up a new life with an eye toward helping others.

The course was taught by Hannah Cowles, a PhD student at the Indiana University School of Social Work, and focused on the Social Action Movement. Participants included 14 students from the re-entry facility and 11 social work graduate students.

The Inside-Out program was piloted at Temple University in 1997 when Criminal Justice faculty member Lori Pompa began bringing Temple students to Philadelphia area prisons to study side-by-side with incarcerated students, Cowles told those at the graduation ceremony. Now, the program is being offered in 37 states.

Group of StudentsThe first Indiana Inside-Out course was offered by Professor Susan Hyatt of the Department of Anthropology and Professor Roger Jarjoura of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, both of IUPUI, at the Plainfield Re-Entry Facility in 2007. Hyatt and Jarjoura completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute in the summer of 2006. Cowles took the Inside Out Course from Dr. Hyatt and Melissa Benton in the spring of 2009 and was so inspired, she also became a certified Inside-Out instructor.

Among the goals of the program is to allow students and others outside of prison to go behind the walls to reconsider what they have learned about humanity and injustice, Cowles explained. “In the groups’ discussions, countless life lessons and realizations surface about how we as human beings operate in the world, beyond the myths and stereotypes that imprison us all,” Cowles said. Judging by the written comments, the most recent Inside-Out course did just that.

“A renewed sense of purpose that strengthens my commitment to stay and step up my efforts in the social movement for change arena,” wrote Philip, an inside student about the impact the course had on him. “What I will take with me is the experience of hope, inspiration, and a sense of encouragement that I thought only existed in movies or novels,” Norman, another inmate, wrote. Rhonda, one of the outside students, wrote, “The Inside-Out classroom experience has allowed me the chance to experience insightful reflection from an outstanding group of men, who surprised me with the level of thought and reflection. The raw honesty and deep reflection from the Inside students strengthens my resolve to be a better student and to seek the truth of all individuals.”

Edward, one of the inside students, told those at the ceremony that he has been in prison a long time and has been able to take two Inside-Out classes. In the first class he learned not to be so preoccupied by his current needs that he overlooked his future needs. During the second class taught by Cowles, he learned to think of more than just himself. Not only did he need to think about his personal situation, he realized the community he would be returning to has needs as well. So as he looked to his future, he was thinking about what he could do to help his community meet its needs.

Another inside student, Kevin, spoke of how the class demolished a belief he had held that no one on the outside cared about those who had been incarcerated. “They shook us up,” Kevin said of the outside students. For him, the class served as a “shot of adrenalin,” to do great things in the future. Kevin talked of plans to enroll in college. If he does, then just maybe the years he has spent in prison won’t be a waste, he said.

While the class read a number of writings from people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and President Barack Obama,  one inside student told a story about his mother to illustrate the impact the class had on him. Jeff’s mother had grown up in a small Tennessee town in the 1940s where her family were sharecroppers. Her family had little money, but they were able to have peanut butter sandwiches to take to school. One day her mother noticed the peanut butter was disappearing faster than it should have and she asked Jeff’s mother about it.

His mother explained that students at school were taking her peanut butter sandwiches. Instead of being angry, Jeff’s mother took extra sandwiches to school because she realized her fellow students were just as hungry and poor as she was. The lesson was simple, Jeff said. People cannot let their hearts become so hardened as to not feel for others. “We are responsible for one another,” he said.

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