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Inside out: why we need to bring students and prisoners together

Australia should adopt a US program that brings students into prisons to learn with prisoners. Prison image from

Over the past 15 years, a criminal justice professor in Philadelphia named Lori Pompa has quietly grown an innovative education program that brings together university students to learn alongside prisoners behind bars.

The Inside-Out program has been conducted with 310 academics from over 120 universities in 37 US states and overseas, and more than 300 Inside Out courses have been held.

Holding normal university classes inside a prison may seem a bridge too far for some, but Professor Pompa says that it benefits the “outside students” as much as the “inside students”. The program is run according to strict guidelines including rigorous selection procedures, no contact between students outside the course, and involving only first names.

As one academic puts it, the idea is “to bring two very different communities together … and in a way, have both groups turned inside out.”

Inside Looking Out from Tiffany Stubbert on Vimeo.

The strength of the idea may be that it has been able to grow organically. The way Professor Pompa tells it, the program acquired a life of its own, to be taken up by academics and prison administrators around the US.

Another strength is the focus on learning. Professor Pompa emphasises what the program is not:

We are not going in to try to help the inside folk, nor to research them or advocate for them.

The original idea started when a group of students were allowed to engage with prisoners rather than the usual uncomfortable student visit, which prisoners often experience as voyeuristic and intrusive.

The wide range of courses run in the US also shows the versatility of the program. From literature and ethics to criminal justice, youth justice and general sociology. The courses are all run to a basic format – students sit in a circle, one outside student next to one inside student and so on around the circle.

The lecturer acts as a facilitator, encouraging discussion of texts and ideas. The group often works on a collaborative project as part of the assessment, and there is a graduation ceremony to mark the end of the course.

There are no formal evaluations of the program yet, but a national steering committee of academics from New York to Kentucky will evaluate and monitor the project as it rolls out across the US. And there is plenty of evidence about the benefits of education in reducing recidivism after release from prison.

The benefits of this program which has engendered such widespread support in the US and which requires very little public expenditure beyond the provision of space and use of existing resources are obvious.

So should we be setting up a similar program in Australia?

It is widely accepted that around 60% of NSW prisoners have literacy and numeracy problems. By necessity, correctional educators here focus on these basic skills and those which prepare prisoners for the types of menial work available in prisons. But only a tiny number of prisoners have the opportunity to study at a tertiary level (long distance) due to lack of access to basic resources such as the internet and teaching staff.

But adopting the program in Australia could prove a difficult sell with the public. The idea that prisoners should have access to higher education may not sit well with a criminal justice system often criticised for leniency towards offenders.

The recent calls for longer sentences for manslaughter after the tragic killing of Thomas Kelly and calls for extreme prison conditions to cut costs often blind the public to the real need for positive rehabilitative programs in our prisons.

Rarely is it appreciated that the protection of the community is best served by promoting programs which contribute to a deeper engagement with the community on the part of prisoners. Studying with other students who are not focused on any other outcome but that of collaborative learning allows prisoners to see themselves as potential future members of the community instead of outcasts.

It seems that the US, the greatest incarcerator in the world may be ahead of Australia in allowing such initiatives without any of the political and media backlash which often bedevil prison initiatives here.

Pompa says that the main benefit of the Inside-Out program was something she hadn’t envisaged at all, the opportunity to make learning a truly human and expansive experience. By encouraging open dialogue, students are, she says, able to gain a greater understanding of themselves.

The benefits of encouraging these faculties of self-knowledge and awareness in our students cannot be underestimated. If the positive benefit extends to our prison population and by extension to the wider community in Australia, then the only question is: why haven’t we done this already?

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