By Martha Saxton
The most engaged and curious students that I teach gather in the visiting room of the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections. We meet there because half of the students are incarcerated men. They, along with an equal number of male and female “outside students” from Amherst College are registered for one of several semester-long courses for credit from the college. Together, we have studied the history of our criminal justice system, an introduction to human rights, and last spring, American wars since 1945. With the help of some ice-breaking exercises, rules of respect that the class creates, and small group work organized so that everyone gets to know and learn from one another, the class quickly coheres. The outside students stop imagining danger, and inside students stop worrying about intimidating college students.
Lori Pompa of Temple University and a group of men serving long sentences in Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania (known as the Think Tank) developed this transformative model of learning that has become the basis of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Currently about 450 of us from all different kinds of colleges and universities have been trained and teach in prisons and jails around the country.
Learning the Inside-Out way can change people. The courteous and often shy men waiting in the visiting room surprise the college students with their eagerness for education. Outside students discover that they equally enjoy learning from the acute writers and thinkers inside, and helping those who struggle with reading comprehension. They learn about lives marked by poverty, bad schools, welfare agencies, the criminal justice system, the drug laws and the toll of mandatory sentencing, the difficulty of maintaining family ties from inside, the coercion and inhumanity of prison life, where many wind up back inside for another “bid”—struggles very different from their own. One outside student decided as a result that he no longer wanted to be a prosecutor after college. Most are changed by seeing the futility and social damage that mass imprisonment causes.
Meanwhile, the inside students learn that they have much to offer in a classroom, that their thoughts and opinions matter, that they can compete with privileged college students, and that school does not have to be a place of humiliation and frustration. Weekly papers improve their writing; their worlds enlarge with information, ideas, and respectful discussion. More than one inside student has spoken of our classroom as the place where he feels free. Many enroll in other college courses; some go on, outside, to complete their degrees.
The rules stipulate that inside and outside students will have no contact after the class is over (since prison officials are always worried about security, and might be tempted to cancel the program otherwise). But during the semester, students make friends across great differences. Outside students love hearing about inside students’ families. Together, they debate politics. Recently, an Amherst student was brought to tears by an incarcerated former marine’s first-hand account of the 1983 bombing of the barracks in Beirut and the death of his closest friend. It is hard to say goodbye on the last day of classes.
President Obama praised Nelson Mandela for freeing not just the prisoner but also the jailer. These classes, at their best, can help students—both inside and out—give meaning to those words in a country that jails a higher proportion of its citizens than any other country in the world.
Martha Saxton teaches History and Sexuality, Women’s, and Gender studies at Amherst College. She has been teaching in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program with Amherst students and students from the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections for seven years.