Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program ‘transformative’ for DePaul and detainees

Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program
At Cook County Jail this spring, Jacqueline Lazú (standing), an associate professor and associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, taught the course "Critical Community Engagement" with Xavier Perez (far right), director of DePaul's criminology program. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

DePaul students expecting their classroom to sit squarely on the Lincoln Park or Loop campuses get a little something different with the university’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Courses on theatre, religion, criminology, community service studies and political science instead take place at Chicago’s Cook County Jail or Stateville Correctional Center, where DePaul undergraduates, called “outside” students, are joined by detainees, called “inside” students, to learn as peers and engage in a variety of topics.

Inside students earn college credit from DePaul, which is transferable, and can be used towards obtaining a degree. For DePaul students, the class is credit for their major, minor or an elective. Both inside and outside students are treated as members of the DePaul community and are expected to complete the same pre-class reading and homework, as well as to participate in group discussions.

“The experience is transformative for both campus-based and incarcerated students,” says Nila Ginger Hofman, director of DePaul’s community service studies program and a professor of anthropology. “Both groups learn from one another, and it helps break down social barriers. In addition, many studies have shown that recidivism is substantially lessened when inmates further their education. Beginning the process of earning a degree while still incarcerated puts them in position to keep it going once they are released.”

Originally founded in the late 1990s at Temple University in Philadelphia, Inside-Out came to DePaul’s campus in 2012, thanks in part to the work of Howard Rosing, executive director of DePaul’s The Steans Center, and Jacqueline Lazú, an associate professor and associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences. Lazú  is also the director of the university’s community service studies program.

While other Illinois universities teach in prisons and jails around the state, DePaul is one of only three schools in Illinois that are part of the Inside-Out family. Benedictine University and Rend Lake College are the other two participating institutions.

Kimberley Moe, a faculty member in DePaul’s philosophy department, taught the first class in 2012 at Stateville. Moe has been instrumental in maintaining relationships with wardens and other personnel at both Stateville and Cook Country Department of Corrections.

The DePaul program expanded to Cook County Department of Corrections in 2017, thanks in large part to a grant written by Lazú.

“To me, the Inside-Out Program has DePaul written all over it,” Lazú says. “We talk a lot about human dignity and social justice at DePaul. This is one of those academic spaces where these values are truly lived out both during the course and beyond.”

Currently, seven DePaul faculty have taken the training necessary to teach Inside-Out courses. This spring, criminology faculty Jacqueline Lazú and Xavier Perez taught “Critical Community Engagement” at Cook County DOC and John Zeigler, director of the Egan Urban Center, taught “Masculinity, Justice, and the Law” at Stateville Correctional Center.

“Teaching inside is a life-long personal goal for me,” Perez says. “We humanize the process and envision a just society based on the principles of compassion and redemption. Teaching inside allows us the opportunity to break down barriers and challenge conventional notions of criminality. We learn from each other’s perspectives and life experiences. We develop a greater understanding of the personal struggles and structural impediments facing people in society.”

Previous classes have included Laura Biagi’s theatre class, “Storytelling as a Healing Art: Feminine Archetypes;” Moe’s community service studies course, “Restorative Justice: Engagement with the Prison;” Scott Paeth’s religion class “Theology Behind Bars” and Christina Rivers’ course “Law, Politics, and Mass Incarceration.”

James Derecskey, a sophomore philosophy major, is in Zeigler’s class at Stateville this quarter.

"From the first week, I knew this class would have an enormous impact on my life," Derecskey says. “I knew I wanted to go to law school for civil rights, and this class channeled my interests into mass incarceration specifically."

Faculty and students interested in learning more about DePaul’s Inside-Out Program should check out the program website.

Note: ABC7 Chicago recently attended Lazú and Perez’s class at Cook County DOC and published two pieces, one on Perez and the other on the Inside-Out Program, for the network’s segments called “Chicago Proud” and “Building a Better Chicago.”