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College will begin “Inside-Out” class at state prison in Chester

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Across the U.S., many colleges and universities are establishing programs aimed at spreading resources of higher education to individuals serving sentences in the U.S. federal prison system. In the past month, the academic programs at New York University, the University of Notre Dame, and the College of the Holy Cross have been expanded to include variations on a unique form of pedagogy targeted towards incarcerated individuals. In concert with these trends, Swarthmore is expanding its existing educational connection to the Chester State Correctional Institution with the addition of a second “Inside-Out” class that will be taught next fall.

The “Inside-Out” program was established at Temple University in 1997 with the goal of bringing college students and incarcerated people together to study issues of crime and justice within the context of a prison classroom. By bringing these individuals together, the “Inside-Out” program aims to break down stereotypes, prevent recidivism, and lend an experiential learning experience to both college students and incarcerated people that could allow both groups to better understand the intricacies of the criminal justice system.

“It’s not just a good pedagogy,” said Nina Johnson, Visiting Assistant Professor of sociology at the college, who received her certification as an “Inside-Out” instructor last summer. “By not including students that are both inside but also formerly incarcerated, we are missing some of the best and brightest people. This is not just a good idea or an altruistic practice. That’s not it at all. We’re missing the students we really want to teach.”

This fall, Johnson will be teaching “Race and Place: A Philadelphia Story,” which will be the second class offered at the college based on the “Inside-Out” program’s model. The other course is “Politics of Punishment,” which has been taught by Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves since 2006. While “Politics of Punishment” deals directly with issues of criminal justice, Johnson’s class will focus on the intersectionality of race, class, ethnicity, and spatial inequality as seen through the urban lens of Philadelphia. The class will be taught at Chester State Correctional Institution, where most of the individuals serving time are from the Philadelphia area.

“Understanding context will help us understand mass incarceration as a set of outcomes in Philadelphia,” Johnson explained. “It is important to me to keep the relevance of the social context in which we are embedded.”

The “Inside-Out” program is one of a number of similarly-minded pedagogical initiatives throughout the U.S., which range from individual classes taught in prisons — like those taught by Johnson and Reeves — to full degree-granting programs such as, most notably, the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College.

BPI was started in 1999 by a Bard student who envisioned a diffusion of the liberal arts education he was receiving at Bard College to the correctional institutions near Bard’s campus. Each semester, BPI enrolls nearly 300 incarcerated individuals and offers more than 60 courses in a range of subjects including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

“We do an institution-neutral curriculum,” said Daniel Karpowitz, director of policy and academics at BPI. “We replicate the college. We don’t serve the prison. That’s the big difference between us and other approaches.”

Karpowitz explained that while some programs, like Swarthmore’s, exclusively involve incarcerated individuals in courses regarding issues of race, class, and criminal justice, BPI offers the complete Bard academic experience.

“You wouldn’t find 100 percent of the Swarthmore undergraduate curriculum devoted to classes about punishment and race,” Karpowitz explained. “Every Bard student — whether they are incarcerated or not — has to do a ‘Learning and Thinking’ class, a first year seminar, and a senior thesis … If you want to do abstract algebra and Mandarin then so be it. We like to think that’s a choice left up to the student.”

At the end of each incarcerated individual’s academic career, they receive an Associate’s in Arts degree as well as a Bachelors degree from Bard at Bard’s on-campus graduation alongside the rest of the college’s students graduating that semester. Almost 350 such degrees have been conferred to date.

“The working assumption on all of these projects is that we are aiming for matriculation and degrees,” Karpowitz said. “We seek new Bard students in these places because we know they’re there.”

Both Reeves and Johnson agreed that the incarcerated individuals with whom they have worked are fully capable of a Swarthmore education.

“I just thought this is who I’ve been missing,” Johnson said of the individuals that she worked with this summer. “These are the students I want in my classes …People with the kinds of experiences and insights and an incredible thirst for knowledge. Just the reflectiveness and the thoughtfulness and the mastery of their language and their ideas. I just thought, ‘They’re taking me higher.’ Once you have that kind of experience, why would you want to do anything else?”

Still, Reeves does not believe that the college’s “Inside-Out” program will become a full degree-granting program like Bard’s any time soon. While in the past, the college has presented certificates signed by Reeves and Registrar Martin Warner to the incarcerated individuals who have participated in the “Politics of Punishment” course, Reeves does not see the college as poised to establish such an initiative until the whole community agrees upon a method to achieve this.

“At the moment I’m not prepared to go there,” Reeves said. “There is a tremendous amount of work to do still: data collection, admissions policies, lots and lots of discussion and debate among myriad constituencies, etc. This is extraordinarily delicate and challenging work to undertake. And so, I intend to proceed cautiously, making certain that what we are doing, we’re doing well both for Swarthmore and incarcerated students.”

Reeves explained that in the past, some of his students have expressed significant interest in matriculating into the college, but have been dismayed by the various sociocultural barriers to their matriculation. These include the stigma such individuals would face as well as the pervasive fear that previously incarcerated individuals could pose a threat to campus safety.

“I think the first thing we have to do is challenge the notion that everyone outside hasn’t committed a crime and that those who end up inside are somehow vastly different from those who are outside,” Johnson said. ”We need to challenge that because that narrative, I think, is less about individual acts and more about entire swaths of the population whether they are inside or outside. That stigma is race, it’s class, it’s gender, it’s sexuality.”

Karpowitz believes that academic institutions like Swarthmore are well situated to be the agents of such change.

“Philadelphia is a place with an enormous amount of potential, and [yours is] an important institution in the area,” Karpowitz explained. “You guys have an amazing faculty and the ability to bring elite, high quality professors into the prison sector who would not normally be there.”

Johnson agreed.

“Swarthmore as an institution that accrues benefits from this society should be fully invested in returning those benefits,” she said. “As an educational institution we need to be thinking about how do we in our classes take on these issues of mass incarceration and how do we not make them separate from everything else that we do … because they touch every part of our lives.”

One such mode of investment, encouraged by Karpowitz, would be for the college to join the Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison, an initiative started by Bard that brings together colleges and universities across the U.S. who share a dedication to bringing post-secondary instruction in the liberal arts to prison. Presently, the consortium includes a number of comparable institutions such as Wesleyan University, Grinnell College, and Goucher College. Karpowitz explained that while each member institution brings its own unique interpretation of this mission to the consortium, they all share an emphasis on the experiences of the incarcerated individuals rather than the undergraduate students who are involved.

“Whether it’s at Wesleyan or Bard or Notre Dame, student involvement is not at the core of what we do and not essential to what we do,” Karpowitz said. “Students don’t play a central role by any stretch of the imagination in the work of institutionalizing the college presence inside the correctional facility. There are a number of really rich ways and important ways that undergraduate individuals are involved, but it’s not about undergraduates conventionally. This is about preparing incarcerated individuals to have a life of success and flourishing when they get out of prison.”

Reeves explained that he would be interested in discussing a possible collaboration with the consortium; however, he wants to flesh out Swarthmore’s present program before then.

“My own belief is that the culture of each school and campus is different,” Reeves said. “The ‘Inside-Out’ model, provided to us by Temple, works quite well for what I’d like Swarthmore to contribute. I am conducting an intensive empirical evaluation of my courses and after we have a few more data points after Spring and Fall 2016, we’ll see what the data tell us about the course’s impact. Perhaps then, we’ll have some recommendations about how — and in what direction — we as an institution might proceed.”

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