The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program: DePaul Students and Prison Inmates Learn Together

Walking through the doors of Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Illinois is not the typical university experience for either DePaul students or the inmates who are their peers each week. Like many service-learning experiences, however, the theme of “transformation” emerges at Stateville in dynamic and powerful ways. For DePaul students and for the students on the inside of the prison they learn together about restorative justice.

The course, part of the national Inside-Out Program based at Temple University in Philadelphia, has been offered more than half a dozen times by DePaul. The experience is far removed from traditional service learning courses where students are guided in a sense to provide a service within a community. Aligned with the Steans Center’s philosophy of social justice and respect for the human dignity of all, Inside-Out is centered on reciprocity through the exchange and mobilization of knowledge. The focus is not on an unidirectional transfer of resources to community from the university but on helping students—inside and out—to reach their full capacity as human beings. “The point is that this is a real, unique and valuable experience for all who are involved,” says Kimberly Moe, a professor in the philosophy department who has taught the course over consecutive years. “DePaul students and men inside Stateville have a chance to broaden their horizons. It’s egalitarian: everybody has a voice and contributes to the lesson.”

For students (inside and out) to go through this experience, it’s quite profound.

Students in the restorative justice course
Even the design of the prison has an impact on the learning experience. The design is referred to as a “Panopticon” – a type of structure designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The architecture allows a single guard to observe all inmates of the institution. Meanwhile, inmates do not know when they are being watched.

“For students to go through this experience, it’s quite profound,” says Jacqueline Lazú, Associate Professor of Modern Languages and former Director of the Community Service Studies Program. Lazú administers Inside-Out for DePaul through the Community Service Studies (CSS) minor, a partnership between the Steans Center and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. “What jumps out, I think, is that this kind of course takes us out of our comfort zone,” she says.

Courses in the program focus on restorative justice and include topics such as the court system and gender and identity. In addition to Professor Moe, during the past year, political science professor Christina Rivers and John Ziegler, Director of the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships at the Steans Center, joined the faculty of the Inside-Out program. Lazú hopes to see more and more DePaul faculty come onboard as the curriculum expands.

Inside-Out has already informed curriculum beyond Community Service Studies. In his Community Audio Art class, for example, music composition instructor Jeff Kowalkowski’s students developed 12-minute audio documentaries about Professor Moe’s Inside-Out course; the recordings contain music as well as dialogue that depict what life is like in the prison. Some of Kowalkowski’s students visited Stateville multiple times and he also recorded the graduation ceremony for Moe’s class. “The first time we went to Stateville it was very emotional,” he says. “Even the sound there is unlike anything I’ve ever heard – it’s a cacophony, and it can be painful to hear. Especially when you know that inmates are in cells 23 hours a day.” Kowalkowski says this work will be part of an archive of recordings in prisons that Moe will use in classes.

Some of the most unique forms of curricular expansion in Inside-Out emerge out of Think Tank, a post-course component where alumni can develop new courses. Every Thursday throughout the year DePaul students and inmates who have taken the course come together to discuss relevant issues related to incarceration.

Students – Inside and Out

“We are not there to study anyone or play whistleblowers,” adds Moe. “We are there to learn with them. It’s not like a traditional classroom.” She says that she and students do not ask the inmates at Stateville what they’ve done. “We are wishing for them to open up their thinking, in the broader sense,” she notes. “The inmates are often defined in terms of one act, and DePaul students see that people do change.”

In 2012, Maggie Miller, who graduated from DePaul with degrees in community psychology and peace, justice and conflict studies major and then studied law at DePaul, was in the first section of Moe’s restorative justice course. She comments that “part of what makes this a different experience is how much everyone wants to be there. It really boils down to everyone being grateful for that kind of experience. You also get to know each other more than in other courses. You go to school every day, and everyone is focused on fulfilling a requirement, getting out of school and getting a job,” says Miller. “In the Inside-Out Program, it’s different. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

One example of how “inside” students commit to the class, says Miller, was of an inmate in the prison whose first language was Spanish. “He was genuinely curious about a document that was in English – and (we) made sure it was translated so that he could understand it.”

For DePaul students, the Inside-Out experience may be like no other they have at the university. They travel to the prison on the day of a class session and join the inmates to learn together. “I was really blown away,” says Simone Ciobotaru, who was pursuing a degree in psychology with a minor in philosophy. Ciobotaru was especially struck by the commitment made by the men who live at Stateville. “I admit, my responses to the material were not as elaborate as theirs,” she says. “Some reread books three times. They bring a lot to the class.” The class, she says, “was filled with amazing discussions. Now I have a much different and more informed answer to the question ‘How would you reform the prison industrial system?’ You see how people who live at Stateville think about it – and learn about how it affects them.” Class discussions, she and other students say, allowed for a discussion of specific assignments while also encouraging reflections from people who directly experience prison life. One reading of Aristotle, Ciobotaru says, focused on what it means to be a good person.

“Service learning has inspired me to apply what I learn and take it out of the ivory tower,” adds Marcus Davis, who graduated from DePaul’s School for New Learning, where he studied ethnographic studies and sociology. Davis was trained as a sociologist and he is also an artist and journalist. “I didn’t really know what to expect with this course,” he says. “Maybe, with so many men of color in prison, that gave me a bit more consciousness of the gravity of this situation.” He adds that he does not have a lot of experience studying the prison system, but says that he taught in public schools and it was not uncommon to hear about students being arrested. “You see how the cycle of incarceration filters through generations. I sometimes think, ‘Oh My God that could have been me if I had made a right instead of a left turn.’ I’ve come to understand the oppression of the men in the prison. They would be the first to admit they made mistakes, but they still have things to contribute. Meanwhile, I’ve tried to be aware of my privilege. At the end of the day, I get to leave and go to my apartment.”

Davis reflected on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” which describes a place where prisoners are chained to a cave. “For me, it has a framework to see what’s wrong with our system. How do you ask someone to develop hope in that environment? I don’t know if there are any easy answers – but being able to have conversations with someone who is living, it helped me get in better touch with my own humanity.” The course, Davis says, “takes an emotional toll on you – you will be transformed in some way. It’s a physical experience, since you’re going through security, and it’s also intellectually challenging. It’s also a great example of the theory of learning and application coming together.”

Logan Breitbart, a senior studying philosophy says that taking a Peace, Justice & Conflict Studies course at DePaul and having a family member who was incarcerated led him to enroll in the Inside-Out program. He recalls his first view of Stateville. “Within the confines of a giant square created by concrete walls, it looks like a campus. Inside, it’s worn and old, and smells like cleaning agents. I noticed that there was a hedgehog living in the yard area – and realized that this animal had more freedom than the guys inside.”

He also remembers a comment by one of the inmates that reflects their hunger for learning. “This man, a 20-year veteran of Stateville, said that taking the class was one of the biggest achievements of his life and he wanted his family to come to graduation.” There’s an earnestness about the guys inside that you can’t deny,” he adds. “In fact, you want to reciprocate. That’s also a testament to the professor.”

What would Breitbart tell other students about the class? “I would tell them that it certainly opens you up and lets you hear voices that are really silent in our society. That is so valuable in education.” He adds that the experience changed his perceptions of those on the inside. “We tend to get a lot of ideas about what a criminal is. But when you add veteran, cosmetologist, father – and, in this class, student – you have a broader and more accurate view.”

Meanwhile, students on the inside were outspoken about their experience in the class. Because of this class, one “inside” student says, “I am able to share my experiences of blindly stumbling through the system in search of justice…I feel that a class of this kind should be mandatory for all future lawmakers. Yes, I would take another class of this kind.” Another student noted, “I truly enjoy learning about new things – things I never would have learned about if I wasn’t in this class. I learned something I can teach my children.”

Another student from the inside related that “Since I have been incarcerated (1995) this is the first time that I have been made to feel human and showed that I matter… I truly felt included, but most of all I felt comfortable and noticed that the students felt comfortable also. The discussions are so amazing and giving.”

Professor Moe notes, “One of the guys in Stateville said he didn’t want the class to end – he said that when he was in class, he wasn’t in prison any more. It’s so true. When you’re learning, you feel like there’s something divine about it.”

I learned from these men, and they learned from me.

Angelica Roman, who graduated from DePaul in 2013 with a degree in sociology and a minor in psychology, took the three-hour Inside-Out course and got involved in the Think Tank which, she says, is “about sharing ideas about criminal justice and incarceration. In the class, we’d bounce ideas off of each other. We talked about so many topics – stereotypes of what victims and offenders are like, the nature of justice and so much more. The class really impacted me and who I am now. I learned from these men, and they learned from me.” Roman, who gave a speech at the graduation for this class, says that while taking the course, she learned how to see the “inside” students in a different way. “Just being able to see these guys as people – that was a great experience. You grow with them; when I started, I could be kind of reserved. At first, it’s like there’s a wall between you and them. By the end of the quarter, it feels like you’ve known them for so long. You learn to break down judgments, and open your eyes to something bigger.”

These days, Roman is working as a community health outreach worker at Safer Foundation, an organization that provides services to ex-offenders. Her sister, she notes, is a GED facilitator inside Cook County Jail and studies law at DePaul. In her work, Roman helps ex-offenders sign up for health care. “I ask them what they are planning to do – and we sometimes talk about how there is something bigger than the street. Someone once asked me if I was scared in this job. No, I told them, because these are people and I can talk to them. I really want to work with people who are incarcerated. The guys at Stateville helped me realize that.”

For Lazú, the course is not really about serving others but more about transforming lives of faculty and students on the inside and out. “To me,” she notes, “this is a course that has DePaul written all over it. We talk a lot about human dignity and social justice at the university. This is one of those academic spaces where these values are truly lived out both during the course and beyond.” ​​

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