The 24 women sat in a circle of chairs, half of them dressed in modern clothes and the other half in tan prison uniforms. They laughed, cheered and cried together like old friends as they reflected on their shared experience over the past four months and prepared to say goodbye.
In August 2018, these same ladies were fighting back nervousness and apprehension as they prepared to meet each other for the very first time, feelings that quickly vanished. Every Friday during the fall semester, 13 female students from Mercer University drove to Pulaski State Prison to take the “Building Community/Inside-Out” course alongside 11 women incarcerated there.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was created by Temple University more than 20 years ago, and this is the second year that Mercer has partnered with an area prison to offer the class.
Dr. Lori Johnson, associate professor of political science and director of the law and public policy program at Mercer, and Dr. Sara Appleby, assistant professor of psychology, received grant funding from Mercer’s Research That Reaches Out initiative to attend training to teach the course. Dr. Appleby taught the course to 13 Mercer students and 12 men incarcerated at Central State Prison in fall 2017, and Dr. Johnson taught the fall 2018 class at Pulaski State Prison.
“I love what we’re doing all around the world, but I think it’s also really cool that Mercer invests in the local community and is making a difference here, too,” Dr. Johnson said. “There’s no group of people more isolated or excluded than persons who are incarcerated. Part of that is by intention, and part of that is by accident. It’s just really easy to write off people, and yet we know 90 percent of the people who are in prison are coming out, so they’re going to be back in our communities.”
Students discussed criminal justice issues such as why people commit crimes, how to prevent crime, how society defines crime and criminals, mass incarceration, restorative justice and the difficulty of the re-entry process. Since the class was writing-focused, students were responsible for completing many informal and formal papers and reflections.
The Inside-Out program requires that students use only their first names, to maintain a level of anonymity and create a comfortable environment, Dr. Johnson said.
“The ‘inside’ students and the ‘outside’ students get to interact and teach each other. I’ve learned so much from the ‘inside’ students about the criminal justice system just because they are a part of it,” said Alice, a Mercer student. “I’ll never be able to view the prison system the same way. All the stereotypes of someone who is a prisoner and someone who is a ‘criminal’ – those have been shattered for me.”
Students worked on “peacemaking circles” and created logos in groups for their final projects this year. Last year, they did group projects on an area of the criminal justice system they wanted to see reinvented or reformed. The inside students don’t receive college credit for completing the course at this time, but Dr. Johnson and Dr. Appleby hope this can be arranged in the future.
Dr. Appleby also would like to see the program expand at Mercer by having more faculty members trained to teach the course and working with other prisons in the area. The goal is to start offering the course in the spring, too, instead of just the fall, Dr. Johnson said.
“One of the most important things the outside students learn is that these are human beings behind these walls and behinds these policies,” Dr. Appleby said. “They also learn that people can change, people can reform. The inside students learn things like improved writing skills and communication skills, but also confidence that if and when they do get released, they can do college-level work if they want to go and get a degree.”
As required by the program, the inside and outside students aren’t allowed to stay in contact after the class ends. This can be hard for the students, who have formed strong bonds during the semester.
During the last class Dec. 7, the Mercer students brought a buffet of breakfast foods to share with the inside students and guests. Certificates were awarded to all the students to recognize their completion of the course, five students shared their reflections, and a group of students demonstrated a peacemaking circle.
“Being a part of this class has been one of the best, most-enlightening experiences that I’ve had since I’ve been incarcerated,” Tas said amid tears during the ceremony. “(The outside students) accepted me and looked at me like I was a real person. From day one, you all have never looked at us like we were less than. We were equal.”
She said the course helped her become a more effective writer and gain a better understanding of the criminal justice system and the power of restoration and reconciliation. She feels like she has a clearer path to guide her life and the motivation and confidence “to be somebody” in the future.
Libby thanked the Mercer students and faculty for giving her hope and advocating for her and the other women at the prison. She challenged them to never forget their passion.
“My view of the criminal justice system, I already knew it was pretty flawed, but hearing it from the prisoners made me change my view on the system and society, as well,” said Mo, a Mercer student. “I felt really empowered by the class to make a change and actually go out and make a difference, not just for myself but for the bettering of society.”