On Dec. 6, a graduation ceremony took place at the Pennsylvania Industrial Correctional Center (PICC), where twelve women received diplomas for completing “The History and Politics of Punishment: An Inside-Out Prison Exchange Course.” The program, led by Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves ’88, is part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings together “Outside” Swarthmore students with “Inside” incarcerated individuals to learn about the criminal justice system.
Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Karen Simmons, Delaware County District Court Judge Judge Dawn Vann, and Harve Nichols, a social worker from the Veterans Administration, were in attendance at the ceremony.
The ceremony was held in the PICC gymnasium, and began with heartfelt interactions between the Inside and Outside students, after the Outside students passed through rigorous security checks and were instructed to surrender all technology.
Reeves set the tone with a warm introduction, emphasizing the transformative impact of the program. Tears and smiles filled the room as students prepared for the ceremony, a poignant reminder of the emotional journey they had shared throughout the semester.
One PICC Inside student named Brianna delivered a powerful speech, highlighting the course’s focus on and the carceral system’s roots in the history of slavery and the unjust treatment of African Americans in the United States. She challenged societal perceptions of incarcerated individuals, urging everyone to strip away biases and foster understanding. Brianna’s call to action resonated as she encouraged both Inside and Outside students to take pride in their unity.
“When does it all change? Once we strip away perceptions, then our country will start to breathe again. The sea of blue is your battle cry to set progress into motion. Use each other in a positive way- there is unity in the uniform,” Brianna said in her speech. “I ask you to see us, every last one of us. Judges, next time you step in a courtroom, see what the person was truly facing and what they were enduring to lead them to stand before you” she asked.
Brianna will continue to apply to college after PICC with the aid of Reeves and Sahiba Tandon ’25.
Following Brianna’s moving words, Ellie Baron ’25 and Tandon expressed gratitude and shared their reflections. The emotional ceremony continued with speeches from both Inside and Outside students.
Among the reflections, one of the oldest women, Ms. Andrea, expressed her determination to change the flawed legal system, thanking Reeves for recognizing her potential. Other Inside students, like Natalie and Neera, praised the class for providing a platform for self-discovery and venting.
“The Inside-Out class had an amazing impact on my life. Not just the class but Doc and the Outside students. Thank you for not giving up on us. When I was at my lowest, I looked forward to this class and Doc,” Natalie said of Reeves. “Doc, thank you so much for everything and thank you for not letting me give up.”
The Outside students reassured the Inside students that they are heard and seen throughout their reflections, emphasizing their strength and validity. Charlotte Pasko ’24 reflected on her experience in the class.
“The strength, hope, and resilience emanating from every person in this class is palpable, even on the toughest days. This class has become more than an educational experience; it is a sanctuary of mutual understanding and respect,” she said. “Each interaction was a reminder of our shared humanity, fostering a profound empathy that transcended the physical walls of the [PICC]. I stand with you, inspired and moved by your strength and wisdom.”
The ceremony reached its climax as Vann presented certificates to the graduates, and Nichols closed with a heartfelt poem. After the ceremony, during a shared dinner, students reminisced on the memories they created together and discussed their next steps beyond the course.
The celebratory atmosphere of the ceremony did not overshadow the pressing issues highlighted by the Inside students. At dinner, PICC students raised concerns about the pitfalls of the prison system. Inside students expressed their sadness at the completion of the course, emphasizing its significance in their otherwise challenging week. Students also discussed healthcare-related issues within the prison, including the neglect of women’s needs like menstrual products and childcare.
Beyond the prison walls, the graduates may face the harsh reality of re-entry challenges. The stigma of being labeled an “ex-offender,” coupled with a lack of support, may impede their efforts to rebuild their lives. Students called for a re-evaluation of the criminal justice system to ensure meaningful reentry into society. They highlighted the importance of education and understanding in breaking the cycle of incarceration, so that the graduates can get a real “second chance.”