Program breaking down prison walls
Lori Pompa’s Inside-Out program allows incarcerated students and Temple students to learn alongside each other
Photo by Robert Eskind, Philadelphia Prison System
|Temple’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program brings “outside” Temple students together with imprisoned “inside” students in a criminal justice course. “We sit in a circle the entire semester. The two groups become one immediately. It is amazing,” said founder and instructor Lori Pompa. Using the Temple program as a model, up to 20 Inside-Out classes will be launched in the spring at universities nationwide.
Lori Pompa easily finds the words to explain what students in Temple’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program gain by attending class inside prison, alongside prisoners, for an entire semester.
“Once you have found human beings where you were told there were only monsters, you can never be the same again,” said Pompa, founder of Inside-Out, which brings “outside” Temple students together with imprisoned “inside” students in a criminal justice course.
“There is really very little distinction between us. The outside students see that immediately.
We sit in a circle the entire semester. The two groups become one immediately. It is amazing.”
But ask Pompa what it’s like to coordinate student visits to prison, to arrange car pools, to educate students about clearance issues, prison etiquette, and dress codes, to explain about the four-hour time commitment it takes to travel to prison and attend class, and … well, the words are a little less eloquent — but no less passionate.
“The anxiety level is like … YAAAAAH!” Pompa said, raising her voice three octaves and reaching toward the ceiling. “It shakes them up.”
Pompa says this with a smile. That’s what she wants from Inside-Out.
“My mission, really, with my life, is to take people inside so that they’ll be as disturbed as I was 20 years ago and then go and make change.
“We are still putting people in cages in 2005,” Pompa continued. “We can’t figure out a way to address criminal activity, which is mainly a symptom of deeper problems in society. Prisons are the end product of failed policies in our society.”
Through steely vision, hard work, guidance and sheer pluck, Pompa, a criminal justice instructor in the College of Liberal Arts, has built Inside-Out from a single pilot class into a model program that’s being replicated by colleges and universities across the country.
Nearly 500 Temple students — and another 500 “inside” students — have taken Inside-Out since 1997. But over the next year, students from nearly 30 schools will go into the nation’s prisons to attend classes side by side with incarcerated students, undergoing the same apprehension, education, enlightenment — and growth — that Temple students have experienced for the past eight years.
In 2002, Pompa received the prestigious, $65,000 Soros Foundation Justice Senior Fellowship to make Inside-Out a national model. Since then, she and the Inside-Out team have led four training sessions, including two this past summer, for instructors who want to replicate the program in their individual colleges and universities. They’ll hold three more training sessions in 2006.
Altogether, 56 instructors from 44 colleges and universities in 18 states have attended the intensive, weeklong training sessions and are now working to implement their own Inside-Out programs, according to Pompa. Hundreds more have expressed interest in the program over the past year, she said.
Pompa anticipates that more than 20 Inside-Out classes will be launched in spring at universities nationwide, including Penn, Indiana University, Mount Holyoke, Amherst and the College of Wooster. They’ll join colleagues from places like Vanderbilt Divinity School, Gettysburg, Bucknell, Chestnut Hill College, the University of Delaware and North Carolina State, which have already instituted the program.
Other schools, such as Vassar, the University of Massachusetts, the University of California at Irvine and Oregon State are looking to institute the program next fall and the following spring.
“It’s not just criminal justice instructors,” said Pompa, noting that Inside-Out trainees have hailed from a variety of disciplines, including gender studies, English, religion and even economics. “We’ve had people from all kinds of colleges and universities, from community colleges to Vassar to Penn.
“It’s amazing the people who are involved with this. To a person, they are all concerned about social change.”
That includes Temple students and incarcerated students attending Inside-Out classes, Pompa said. In fact, the idea for Inside-Out belongs not to Pompa, but to Paul, a bespeckled, soft-spoken man currently serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford.
“Honestly, I don’t really think I would have come up with this idea myself,” said Pompa, noting that students in the program are identified only by their first names. “It’s not the obvious thing.”
A decade ago, Pompa’s students were participating in a panel discussion with some “lifers.” The dialogue was so intense that Paul said the groups could likely talk for an entire semester.
Pompa mulled over the idea for a while — almost two years, actually — and eventually wrote the Inside-Out curriculum, which, by its orchestration and locale, invites students to come together as one group to explore issues of crime, justice, race, class and victimization.
In Inside-Out, students have no contact with each other after the class ends. Outside students do not know why inside students are incarcerated.
Those non-negotiables are partly for security reasons — but not entirely, Pompa said.
“The external specifics of our lives can get in the way of deeper knowing,” Pompa said.
“Hopefully, through this experience, perspectives of all kinds are challenged and changed … perspectives of both ‘outside’ students and ‘inside’ students. This, to me, is how we make change in the world, one person at a time. And then it multiplies.”
“What the class does is open up minds,” said Paul, who said his involvement in Inside-Out and the Graterford Think Tank, an offshoot project, assures him that he won’t be remembered only for his crime.
“I don’t want to die with that type of label on me,” he said. “On some level, it gives all of us that. But on so many levels, Inside-Out transforms you, empowers you.”
That’s the same buzz among students who have taken Inside-Out on Temple’s campus, said Tricia, a senior criminal justice major in the Honors Program. The course is one of the most talked-about courses among Temple students, she said.
“Before you take Inside-Out, you develop this idea — and it’s a very one-sided, very flat idea — of what a prisoner is,” said Tricia, who addressed Inside-Out trainees this past summer.
“Before I took the class, I had never engaged in a discussion with incarcerated individuals,” she continued. “It’s very intense. You’re bombarded by ideas. I can now look back at my reflection papers and see a progression, a growth in how I view things.”
For outside students, the sights, the smells, the sounds of prison are part of real learning, Pompa said, noting that inside and outside students sit in a circle during class, a powerful, unifying symbol.
“We don’t live from the eyebrows up. So why do we think we can best learn from the eyebrows up?” said Pompa, a criminal justice instructor since 1995. “All of our senses come into play.
“Using a circle format in a class that includes students from outside the prison symbolically brings the incarcerated men and women back into the community.”
Inside-Out is “radically different” from other education and training that students pursuing careers in law, corrections or criminal justice are likely to receive, Pompa said.
“In much of that training, there is a strong emphasis on holding yourself apart from those who have been accused and convicted of crimes, on not connecting with them on an especially human level or on a level of equality, of seeing them as ‘other,’” she said.
“It’s unlikely that these students will ever again have the opportunity to engage with men and women who are in prison as peers and equals.”
For inside students, attending class can lead to more educational and personal ambitions and an opportunity to “recognize their capacity as agents of change in their own lives and in the community,” Pompa said.
“This is addictive to me,” said Fox, who is serving life and attended Inside-Out three years ago, and is now involved with the Graterford Think Tank. “Before, I wouldn’t say anything in discussions. Now, there’s a vicious push inside of me to write more, read more.”
“Part of what is wonderful about Inside-Out is the way in which students who bring very different values, experiences, approaches to learning and knowledge bases come together and learn with and from one another,” Pompa said.
It’s a learning experience for instructors, too, according to Paul Eisenhauer, a Chestnut Hill College sociology professor, who took the first Inside-Out training course in July 2004. He has since instituted his own course at Chestnut Hill.
“This puts the heart in scholarship,” Eisenhauer said. “It’s about people’s lives. It’s where the ideas hit the road.
“My sense of what scholarship is has changed over the past year,” he continued. “I’m doing stuff now I wouldn’t have imagined three or four years ago. This has been like finding a part of me that was lost.”
“One of the men at Graterford once told me, ‘These walls aren’t there just to keep us in … but to keep you out,’” Pompa said. “Inside-Out is trying to break down those walls — one assumption, one person, one brick at a time.”
- By Barbara Baals
Read how one former prisoner got new start from Inside-Out [more]
Program births think tank at prison
| While Temple’s Inside-Out program is being replicated at colleges and universities across the United States, the program also has spawned the Graterford Think Tank, which has implemented a number of far-reaching initiatives.
The Think Tank grew out of a summer 2002 Inside-Out class in which 18 Temple graduate and undergraduate students traveled weekly to Graterford Prison to attend class with incarcerated men, many of whom were serving life sentences.
The group continues to meet each Wednesday evening at Graterford to work on projects designed to “elevate public awareness about issues of crime and justice,” according to Temple criminal justice instructor Lori Pompa.
Their work has included workshops for community members, a yearlong collaboration with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, a number of writing projects, and discussions about improvements and modifications to the Inside-Out program. The group co-facilitates a portion of the Inside-Out National Instructor Training Institutes, held three times each year.
This past summer, inspired by discussions held in the 2002 Inside-Out class, the Lifers’ Association at Graterford hosted a group of 150 participants, including some of the world’s leading criminologists, in a discussion and debate on the culture of street crime.
Led by Temple criminal justice professor M. Kay Harris, men serving life sentences at Graterford defended their theory on ending the culture of street crime before a group from the 14th World Congress of Criminology.
The theory was published last year as an article in the Prison Journal (available at www.worldcriminology2005.org/streetculture.pdf).