College Kids and Inmates Take Classes Together...Inside Prisons

To help break down walls, Inside-Out Center students study inside jails with incarcerated men and women.

Inmates and college students are going to class together as part of the Inside-Out Center. (Photo: Thinkstock Images)

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Lori Pompa wants a world where no walls exist.

She attempts to achieve this as the founder and executive director of The Inside-Out Center, where college students study inside prisons with incarcerated men and women.

Pompa, who spoke this week at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas, says that as a society we create not only physical walls like those in prisons, but also emotional and societal ones.

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“I think it is through dialogue that these walls start to break down,” Pompa says.

Indeed, she’s seen it happen in the Inside-Out program, which began in 1997 as a small pilot program out of Temple University in Philadelphia. The semester-long classes are taught with incarcerated men and women and college students from various degree programs sitting beside each other in a circle. No labels are used to identify people as they discuss a myriad of topics ranging from criminal justice to language arts.

It is not a charitable service to help them with problems. It is a class about studying issues as equals.

The 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.”

After the first class, no one—the inside students, outside students, or Pompa—wanted it to end.

“It worked; it worked beautifully,” Pompa says. “It was unbelievably successful.”

The program has grown from that one class to more than 300 classes with 310 instructors, more than 10,000 students, and 150 colleges in 37 states and two Canadian provinces.

Pompa makes it clear what this program is not. It is not studying inmates and recording research about them. It’s not about them talking about their cases. It is not a charitable service to help them with problems. It is a class about studying issues as equals.

“What is key to this program is the equality in that room,” Pompa says. “We have strict parameters, and so far we’ve had no serious incidents.”

She adds, “This is not a touchy, feeling experience.”

Instead, people are learning about themselves and others while assumptions and labels vanish. They learn to communicate and, most importantly, Pompa says, listen.

    Lori Pampa speaking on September 17, 2012, at the Clinton School of Public Service, Little Rock, Ark. (Photo: Jacob Slaton)

“Each interaction gives us the opportunity to encounter each other and to recognize differences and similarities in experiences, perspectives, and beliefs,” the program website states. “By sustaining the practice of listening and seeing more deeply, Inside-Out creates a temporary but significant place for us to invite forth our own and others’ best selves and inspires us to create more such places in the world.”

In 2002, Pompa received a Soros Justice Senior Fellowship that gave her the finances to replicate the program throughout the country. From there, the program, which maintains the same methodology in every prison, has blossomed, with the University of Oregon creating a mini-documentary about it.

The program also wants to increase higher education in prisons in broad-based ways that are financially self-sustaining and create a growing constituency of those in the community who support prison education.

As a result of Pompa’s program, more local colleges are getting involved with higher education in prisons.

“We kind of get college classes to them [the inmates] through the back door,” Pompa says.

At the end of each semester, Pompa says, both inside and outside students are sad. It’s not just because students will no longer see each other weekly, but rather it’s something else, too.

“In that space, something gets created,” Pompa says. “In that space, people try to be their best selves, to say what they really think. Dignity and respect are given to everyone as human beings and citizens. Where do we have spaces that we can be free and talk about things of great importance?”

The most important lesson is what students really realize at the end of the class.

“You have to take this and create spaces like these in other places,” she says.

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