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Kaylee Tornay / Billy Penn

Here’s why ‘Inside Out’ wants to send more college students to prison

The college course aims to humanize the prison experience by holding classes in Graterford.

Juwan Bennett walked into Graterford prison on Sept. 21 wearing Temple University cufflinks.

Of course, he could, because he’d be leaving within a few hours. This was far from his first time at Graterford, and it won’t be his last.

Bennett and 20 other people filed into the auditorium close to 6:30 p.m., where 13 men were waiting for them, along with a couple of guards. The groups fell into two lines to meet each other, like football captains shaking hands before a game. But there was no sense of discomfort or dominance ― both parties laughed and shouted names over the buzz of the electric fans with what may seem to a newcomer as unprecedented ease.

Getting as many people into prison as possible

This scene plays out in the Graterford auditorium once a month, usually including a handful of people who, unlike Bennett and several others, have never been in a prison before. That’s not exactly strange ― it’s safe to say that most of us are raised with a sense that we should do everything possible to steer clear of prisons. But the class taking place here is the product of a criminal justice instructor who has made it her life’s work to get as many people as she can into them.

For Temple professor Lori Pompa, the only separations between people inside and outside of prison worth concerning herself about are the actual physical barriers of concrete walls and metal gates. But with proper clearance, even those are easily surmounted.

“We put these prisons way out of the way because we don’t want the public to have access,” Pompa says. “If more people knew what was going on inside and who is in there and who isn’t in there, we would have a different system.”

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Pompa is the founder and executive director of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, which offers college students and incarcerated people the opportunity to take classes together inside correctional institutions. The program began as a semester-long class offered at Temple, but also includes monthly workshops for community members outside of academia. The goal for both groups is the same: they come to listen and learn from each other.

Though the subjects of Inside Out classes have diversified, at Graterford, they generally focus on criminal justice. Same goes for tonight’s workshop, the topic of which is “Kids, Crime and Community.” The participants are seated in two circles, the outer enveloping the inner. The icebreaker is like circular speed dating; the outer circle moves while the inner stays put. The first questions are fairly casual, but they dig into personal experience: favorite childhood memories, biggest childhood fears. It’s a chance for the participants to discuss their widely varied backgrounds. The students from Swarthmore and St. Joseph’s University and faculty from both schools, as well as Temple, find common ground with the men in maroon jumpsuits rotating in the outer circle.

After the icebreaker, the leaders ― one inside and one outside think tank member ― split up the members into five small groups, each tackling a specific risk factor for children that may affect their decisions regarding criminal activity. One group talks about domestic violence, another discusses poverty. There’s a lot of laughter and teasing mixed into the serious discussion, because the think tank members are often old friends, having seen each other weekly for years. Each group has a facilitator, but the conversation mostly flows.

No bad people

The group discussing the impacts of domestic violence on a child starts with the statistics they’re reviewing: Of the 73.5 million juveniles in America, 14 percent say they’ve witnessed domestic violence. The first couple of questions quickly lead, again, to sharing of personal experiences.

“When I grew up, no one would say anything about it,” Paul says. He adds that he never would have thought of reporting it to the police, because “I seen my pop knock out four or five cops before … I mighta been more scared for the cops.”

Another inside member named Sam, who left the session earlier briefly for prayer, says he never witnessed violence in his home growing up.

“My dad was the blueprint for me. Whenever he and my mom would get mad, he would just leave. He’d come back in like an hour or by the night,” he says.

After small group discussion, the leaders bring everyone back into the big circle to discuss their findings. They invite everyone to throw out reasons why they think kids commit crime, writing down responses on a big Post-it pad.

Ten minutes later, the pad is full. Participants are asked to share their thoughts or questions.

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After a few comments, Nina Johnson, an outside think tank member and Swarthmore sociology professor, offers up this: “Not a single one of these reasons up there is because of bad apples or bad seeds. No one is saying this is because of bad kids or bad people. I just think that’s interesting. And surprising.”

And it’s true. This group is searching for explanations, not for a hypothetical pattern of incarceration, but factors that may have even played into who is in street clothes and who is in maroon uniforms in the very auditorium in which they sit. They discuss the ambiguity of the word “crime,” who gets caught and how they’re held accountable, even how our definition of who qualifies as a child may vary situationally.

19 years of Inside Out

From its conception, the Inside Out program has been collaborative, the product of people on both sides of the walls of correctional facilities working together. Pompa credits an incarcerated man named Paul (present at this Wednesday’s session) with pitching her the idea of a semester-long class made up of half incarcerated students and half college students. She had been going in and out of prisons for several years, and then as an instructor at Temple, had begun to bring students into Graterford during her criminal justice classes.

“When I first went in I was shocked by what I saw, the hundreds of men, the waste of human life,” Pompa says. “I got more and more angry at the system, at our society allowing this to happen,”

“The opportunity to teach at Temple … provided me an opportunity to take the rage I felt about this and transform it into passion and creativity. I was able to take that and with Paul’s suggestion make it into a program.”

In the fall of 1997, a group of Temple students entered the Philadelphia county jail to meet their new classmates on the inside for the first combined criminal justice class. That class had such an impact on them that they formed the think tank, which has been critical to the program’s development.

Now, 19 years later, the model has grown to include all subjects across the humanities and social sciences, and spread to universities across the nation, with academics from several other countries also expressing interest. After their last faculty training, Pompa says, they now have active programs in 45 states and nine other countries come to learn about their methodology.

Graterford prison opened in 1929;  it is expected to close when the Phoenix prison being built nearby is completed.

Graterford prison opened in 1929; it is expected to close when the Phoenix prison being built nearby is completed.

Kaylee Tornay/Billy Penn

Opportunities for incarcerated persons to take college classes are hardly a new initiative. The oldest penitentiary in the nation, once located at Sixth and Walnut streets in Philadelphia, was the first to introduce classes in 1798. Since then, many researchers have studied the impact of education in correctional facilities. One of the biggest factors education can be effective at reducing is recidivism, the likelihood that an ex-offender will return to prison once they are released. A 2014 report by the RAND Corporation found that nationwide, recidivism among people who were educated while incarcerated was 43 percent lower than those who weren’t.

But these aspects of incarceration and rehabilitation have never been Pompa’s focus with Inside Out. In fact, she often will describe the program to newcomers by explaining what its goals are not.

“So often people from the outside come up with programs to help the ‘poor, unfortunate people in there,’” Pompa says. “With us, people who are inside are central to our program and help to design the program. That is very different from other college and prison program … One of the things I don’t want people to think is that we’re trying to teach anyone anything. It’s all about what people bring to the table, and sharing their perspectives. And hopefully by sharing, everybody’s perspective is deepened.”

“All their assumptions are blown away”

Back at Graterford, the workshop is wrapping up. Each person says one way they plan to try and impact children. Every participant answers, including those on the inside. That’s important; it speaks to one of the most important themes of Inside Out. At least 95 percent of people in state prisons are eventually released, and as another staff member, Tyrone Werts, will attest, including inside participants in every part of the Inside Out experience can make a real impact on what their re-entry back into society is like.

“The beautiful part of it is it’s not just about education,” Werts says. “It’s also about people learning about themselves … Guys, when they came out, they saw themselves in a new light.”

Werts is an alumnus of Inside Out himself, having participated in the first class held in Graterford in 2002, during his 36 years in Graterford. His life sentence was commuted by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2010, and he has worked as Inside Out’s national coordinator ever since.

Lori Pompa (seated at left), executive director of Inside Out, waits in the lobby of Graterford prison with group members before a workshop on Sept. 21.

Lori Pompa (seated at left), executive director of Inside Out, waits in the lobby of Graterford prison with group members before a workshop on Sept. 21.

Kaylee Tornay / Billy Penn

The think tank itself is a testament to the lasting impact that the program has in the lives of the outside students, as well. When the Wednesday session ends, the students wait to be released back through the security gates, talking about what they’ve just experienced. Some of them are currently enrolled in a semester-long Inside Out class, so tonight was not wholly foreign. But for some, like Ashley Hyman from St. Joseph’s, the experience was thought-provoking in its newness.

“It’s amazing to see how much you relate to them,” she says. “And it really shows you how you really have to consider all the factors that went into them ending up here.”

So, is she planning to register for an Inside Out class?

“I’m thinking about it,” she says with a laugh.

Later this year, Pompa will be awarded the lifetime achievement award for teaching from the American Society of Criminology. Her immediate reaction is more self-deprecating than proud.

“I feel old,” she says.

But she doesn’t consider her work to be anywhere close to finished, and neither do the other staff at Inside Out. Community members interested in participating in a workshop are encouraged to email the organization (Pompa says classes are booked through the fall but sometimes spots open up), while college students can see if their universities offer an Inside Out class. Pompa says after 30 years of bringing people into prisons with her, she’s never seen anyone experience what they expected.

“All their assumptions are blown away,” she says.

“There’s nothing that makes me happier.”

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