“Inside Out” program brings students and coursework into local prison

On Wednesday afternoon, in the Visitors’ Room of the nearby the Chester State Correctional Institute, Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves oversaw the graduation ceremony of his fourth “Politics of Punishment” course taught in a correctional facility in four years. Reeves did so – following tradition – by repeating the mantra “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to tear down walls and change the world” to the crowd of correctional officers, students, and administrators from the college – including President Valerie Smith – who were circled around him in honor of the accomplishments of his diverse group of students. While half of his class of 30 wore the “browns,” mandated by the facility’s dress code for incarcerated persons, and half were juniors and seniors from the college, all were crying, in celebration of the past semester’s work, but with deep regret that the two groups would likely never see each other again.

Since 2012, Reeves has been teaching in Chester SCI, leading similarly mixed classes of incarcerated students and students from the college through a pedagogical model known as the “Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.” The program, which was originally established in 1997 at Temple University, is operated on the belief that bringing together these two diverse cohorts of imprisoned individuals from the “inside” and undergraduate men and women from the “outside” in order to engage with topics of criminal justice could mutually benefit both groups. While “Inside-Out” courses may vary in discipline and content, Reeves’ focuses on the various social, political, and economic forces that over the past half century have influenced all levels of government in the US, propagating the unparalleled punitivity known as the era of mass incarceration.

“I decided to start taking students into the prison space in the spring of 2010,” Reeves, who has been doing mentorship work and academic research in correctional facilities since 2003, explained. “I had been teaching my section of Intro to American Politics, and there was a week module on voting participation…and I happened to just very parenthetically mention that there was a group of American citizens who in some states are denied the right to vote permanently, and a few groups of students were really intrigued by that…They did some homework…and they came back to me a few weeks later and said they had found an amazing program at Temple called the ‘Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.’”

According to Reeves, these students were aware of his experience in the prison space and asked him if he would bring them into a correctional facility to teach. Reeves at first was hesitant, wary of the safety and logistical concerns involved in leading a group of college students into such a facility, however, when his students arranged a meeting with the founder of the “Inside Out” program, Laurie Pompa, he was convinced. In July of 2010, he attended a 10 day training session to become certified in the “Inside Out” pedagogical model at the nearby State Correctional Institution at Graterford and began to pitch the idea of the course at the college.

“My colleagues in the department were enthusiastic” Reeves explained. “This is the only course that is offered for 1.5 credits given its unique demands on students in terms of time concerns and other demands, but I received a lot of support.”

After two years of working with the Political Science Department, the Registrar’s Office, the Provost’s Office, and Chester SCI administrators, Reeves acquired the institutional backing necessary to begin the course.

In January of 2012, he brought the first cohort of students from the college into the prison, formally solidifying the college’s place in the educational programming offered at Chester SCI. Though many of the “inside” students had taken “Inside Out” classes before, for all of the “outside” students in this pioneering group, this was their first time stepping foot inside of a carceral facility. Nevertheless, at the closing ceremony in April of that year, classmates from both sides articulated a shared perception of the course as the most challenging, but rewarding, of their academic career.

“This class was been a challenge in every sense of the word—emotionally, intellectually, relationally,” explained Sachie Hopkins Hayakawa ‘12, a student in this first cohort. “But each week I had the privilege to work with some of the kindest, strongest, most passionate, and sincere people, in thinking about and trying to confront the realities of carceral injustice.”

KJ, a student from the inside, and also a member of this original group, agreed.

“This program has redefined the label ‘felon’ and made me human again,” he explained. “Now I visualize a brighter future for my family and can see beyond the obstacles ahead. This program has debunked the myths that paralyzed me from finishing college. I’m moving forward, nothing can stop me now.”

Buoyed by the success of this initial iteration of the course, Reeves decided to teach “Politics of Punishment” in Chester SCI again in the following spring, and in the fall of 2014, he moved the course to the Philadelphia work release site near the University of Pennsylvania. This spring, Reeves returned “Politics of Punishment” to Chester SCI, where he feels most comfortable teaching the course given the facility’s immense personal significance to him.

“Chester SCI is a very important place for me, and it seemed for many reasons like the natural fit for the place to hold this course,” Reeves said. “It’s right here, and it’s built in the community space where I was raised. My late twin and I grew up in Chester, and the prison was not there when we were growing up, but it was opened in 1998…I had heard that there was a prison being built not too far from my neighborhood home, but prison was not anything that I had any familiarity with…I had no direct experience with prisons or mass incarceration.”

Nevertheless, by chance, Reeves – who was working with local leaders to establish a community center for Chester children at the time – one day found himself liaising with the newly appointed superintendent of Chester SCI.

“Fate and circumstances led me to meet her…and it just so happened that she said something really profound that rings in my ear to this day,” Reeves explained. “She said, ‘The work you do on your end with the community is so important because if you don’t do something on your end, I’m going to see them on my end.’”

Curious about the superintendent’s statement regarding the intersection of the incarcerated community and the outside community in his childhood neighborhood, Reeves agreed to visit the prison under her guidance during the winter of 2003. On his first visit to the 1200 man, medium security facility, he was shocked to find how closely this interplay hit home for him, when he had the incredible chance encounter of running into a former neighbor from his childhood, Jamal, who was now a lifer at Chester SCI. Reeves began to visit Jamal regularly, familiarizing himself with the Chester SCI facility, and unknowingly laying the groundwork of personal connections that served to ease his entry into this space with students from the college 9 years later.

Today, four years after the course’s inception, the Inside Out program has developed expansively at the college, with a surplus of students requesting to be in one of Reeves’s classes. Nevertheless, due to the logistical constraints of Chester SCI’s limited days available for educational programming as well as the pedagogical guidelines of the Inside Out model, which caps classes at 15 students from each side, Reeves does not permit freshmen, sophomores, or honors Political Science majors to take the class. Furthermore, since the course began, he has also interviewed all interested applicants to ensure that he gets a diversity of students who not only represent heterogeneous backgrounds and interests, but also a broad range of exposure to and beliefs about the criminal justice system.

“It’s important to me that not everyone thinks the same way in this class,” Reeves said. “I don’t just want students have been involved in this work for a long time or represent one set of views on this issue. I want students who might be nervous or apprehensive about the space…The best part of teaching this class is seeing the transformation that occurs. I don’t want to be the only one doing this kind of work, I’m not aiming to be selfish about this work. I want to bring as many people in who have an interest.”

Perhaps the individual at the college most supportive of and receptive to Reeves’s work has been Professor of Sociology, Nina Johnson, who in the fall of this year became the college’s second professor to teach an Inside Out course when she introduced her class “Race and Place” to Chester SCI.

“When I came to Swarthmore, I was asked by Professor Reeves to guest lecture in his class,” Johnson explained. “I was so blown away by the experience and really trying to find my way in the academy in a way that was consistent with my commitments and that opened the door for me. When the next training came up for Inside Out certification, I was all in.”

Johnson explained that despite entering the certification program skeptical of what she was to learn, she was moved by the community of educators and incarcerated individuals that she met through the program during her training at SCI Graterford.

“Mostly, I was moved by the individuals in the ‘Think Tank’ at Graterford, who I found to be living at the highest level of engagement and commitment,” Johnson explained, referring to the group of incarcerated students – all lifers – who work with outside educators to shape the curriculum of the Inside Out program and develop projects focused on re-educating the public about criminal justice. “They taught me how to teach and how to live because they lived their best lives – they lived their gifts and their talents – from the inside. So I thought ‘I’ve got to be doing that.’”

According to Johnson, introducing her course into the prison has been the most fulfilling and rewarding teaching and learning experience of her career in academia. “Race and Place” is an examination of the social, political, and economic forces that have impacted the racial construction of Philadelphia, particularly in terms of housing, employment and education, throughout the 20th century and in contemporary times. For her, teaching this material within Chester SCI gaved it lived meaning due to the fact that so many of her inside students were from the Philadelphia area and could situate their own life experiences within texts and class discussions.

“Highlights of the class were the incredible level of engagement and level of commitment that students – particularly from the inside – brought to the class,” Johnson explained. “This was not a surprise to me, but some of the Swarthmore students were definitely surprised by the level of rigor that inside students brought to the class. I think they realized, ‘I gotta step my game up this is not a regular class.’ Everyone is doing the readings, coming to class ready to work and to work at a higher level.”

Joelle Hageboutros ‘16, who was not in Johnson’s class, but is enrolled in “Politics of Punishment” this spring, echoed Johnson’s sentiments.

“One misconception is that the quality of the course might not be of the same caliber as a Swarthmore course is ‘reputed to be,’” Hageboutros explained. “This is totally false. The inside students will challenge you in many ways that you never thought possible and will bring a unique, nuanced, and thoughtful perspective to the readings and discussions that all the Kierkegaard and Marx readings can never expose you to or prepare you for.”

In addition to the course’s academic rigor, other students described it as having profound emotional value for them, providing them with an experience that was uniquely meaningful to them in ways unlike any other course they had taken at the college.

“To be honest, taking this course stirred up a lot of emotions for me,” explained Medgine Elie ‘17, who is also enrolled in “Politics of Punishment” this semester. “Listening to the stories of my incarcerated classmates was honestly a blessing because I learned so much from them but it was also hard to take in.”

As Elie explained, what was particularly meaningful to her on a personal level because it was one of the few times at Swarthmore where a classroom has been representative of the community that she comes from.

“Studying mass incarceration with currently incarcerated individuals was difficult because all the men looked like me and my family, like men that I grew up with,” Elie said. “Listening to them share about how they are dehumanized by society was painful and frustrating to hear…One of the most memorable moments in the course was when one of my inside classmates said that no one has a problem discriminating against someone with a criminal record. No one feels bad about it because once you are labeled a criminal, according to society, that’s all you are and ever will be. That statement was so blunt and so painfully true.”

Despite the educationally and emotionally transformative effects that students expressed, however, the development of the Inside Out program at the college has not been without obstacles. When Reeves originally pitched the course in 2012, for example, several faculty and administrators expressed concern regarding the potential safety concerns involved with taking students from the college into the prison space. These moments of pushback were at times profoundly disillusioning to Reeves, who more than once worried that a course taught through the Inside Out model would never be approved by the college.

“It’s been really, really heavy lifting…I had said at one point we’re done I can’t do do this it’s just too much heavy lifting,” Reeves explained. “This was sometime in winter of 2011. I had just gotten the official invitation from superintendent to offer course. I was putting all of the final pieces in place…I started to see that I had support in places I never imagined, though, and I’ve tried not to look back since. It’s extraordinarily difficult particularly when you have bureaucratic challenges in the prison and challenges on the administrative side.”

The exterior of the nearby Chester State Correctional Institute

Amongst those Reeves counts among his most meaningful supporters then and now is Registrar at the college, Martin Warner, who according to Reeves, stopped him in the hallway one day and gave him the encouragement he needed.

“I was thinking about the way that it might go along with quaker values including a longstanding interest in prison service and reform,” Warner explained. “There was worry on the grounds that anytime anyone goes to prison one needs healthy caution about what you’re doing and how to do it well. But I also think it’s possible to do well. I didn’t hear anything that was rational. What I heard was more loving concern for the students and worry that the students might be injured somehow, a fear that something terrible might happen at prison and people could be hurt. I didn’t find that worry compelling.”

Reeves explained that as a parent, he could understand these concerns. Nevertheless, there is a strict safety framework built into the Inside Out pedagogy that serves to protect against behavior from students on either side that might endanger the rest of the group. In addition to the program’s first-names-only policy, students are prohibited from passing notes, giving gifts, making physical contact beyond a handshake, or contacting each other once the class is finished.

According to Professor Johnson, who has also faced isolated instances of pushback while developing her course, these safety protections, as well as the rules and regulations of the prison space in general, serve in fact to insulate students in ways that those who have not entered the facility might find difficult to imagine.

“Walking into that institution is safer in many ways than walking onto campus,” Johnson explained. “There are all kinds of social protections that exist there but don’t exist in the real world. When there was an FBI threat to the campus in the fall, students were excited to go because it’s safer…While I’ve heard safety concerns from some faculty, I’ve never heard any complaints from students.”

As Reeves and Johnson continue to successfully lead classes taught in the prison, however, it is likely that the overwhelmingly positive student reviews of their courses – as well as the ideological appeals of the Inside Out model – will continue to attract more and more faculty to expand their coursework to correctional facility. A testament to this rising trend is the sheer number of faculty – which Reeves estimates to be between seven and 10 – who have expressed interest in also pursuing “Inside Out” certification.

Most ardent among these individuals, perhaps, is Professor of Religion, Ellen Ross, who will take her Inside Out training this summer and intends to begin teaching her course, “Prison Letters: Religion and Transformation” as soon as the 2017-2018 academic year.

“It’s been great to have Keith Reeves’ enthusiasm for the program on campus, and I’ve been encouraged by talking with Swarthmore students who were in Keith’s Inside Out course,” Ross explained.

She added that her course, which focuses on themes of religion and transformation within the prison and draws primarily from Christian sources, will discuss everything from the New Testament to the imprisonment of Martin Luther King Jr., framed within the context of the contemporary character of mass incarceration in the US.

“I am here because I want the separation between the world of jails and prisons and the world outside to be transformed,” Ross explained. “We have a lot to learn from one another…When we read and discuss together with respect for one another, and openness to what we can learn…We have a lot to learn from one another and with one another.”

As more and more faculty from the college express interest in teaching Inside Out courses, Reeves explained, the college will need to seek out other correctional venues such as women’s prisons and county prisons into which to expand course programming. Chester SCI only allows Inside Out educational programming on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and at present, the college shares these limited time slots with several other institutions including Temple University and Widener University. Nevertheless, while this growth may be daunting logistically, both Reeves and local correctional administrators alike are excited about the opportunities for partnership that exist.

“I will retire at some point, and for the time that I have now and the opportunities that I have now, I am going to work to create the demand to see this institutionalized,” Reeves said. “My hope and expectation is that we will expand the program, and I’m increasingly optimistic that we are poised to do this both with the current climate and values of leadership at the college and with local officials…This issue is the issue of today, it is the issue of now, and this is one way in which Swarthmore can make a difference.”

Reeves’s students on both the inside and the outside agreed.

As Lee, a lifer and current member of Reeves’ Politics of Punishment class explained at the closing ceremony yesterday, “This course…peels back layers of complexities cloaking such stereotypes in law and order, revealing the truth that is seldom told but often forgotten, if not purposely hid. For this reason, I believe that the conversation this course facilitates is necessary and overdue. If this country is serious about healing the gaping wounds of its past racial history, the ‘Politics of Punishment’ course should be mandatory in all colleges.”  


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