In prison, James* says, you search for events to mark the passage of time. The ton after filthy ton of hospital laundry that cycles through his work area, the gang-infused mealtimes that are stressful, often downright dangerous—these certainly don’t alleviate the stark gray sameness of the months and years. If you can afford new music, you order a CD. Then, for the next six weeks, you look forward to the delivery of that audio escape. Brief meetings with family in the crowded, bus-station-like visiting room provide just a sweet glimpse at the world that still exists beyond the electronic metal gates and twenty-five foot walls that surround the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
Ten years into a twenty-five-year sentence, James was seeking productive ways to make the years pass more quickly. Good work habits and smart choices moved him beyond what he calls the “knucklehead phase”—fighting the system and other inmates—to earn respect from his peers, supervisors, and even the guards. In an issue of the Walled Street Bulletin, OSP’s inmate newsletter, James read about an upcoming class to be offered by the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Though he was interested, he wondered if he could hack the college-level course work. Incarcerated since he was seventeen, he had earned a GED during his first years inside, but still felt unsure of his skills. He applied for admission to the course, passed the interview process, and was accepted.
That first Inside-Out course, administered through Oregon State University, focused on juvenile delinquency. Propped against his cell wall with a pillow at his back, James read voraciously with the clanging, echoing noise of his 2,000-plus neighbors in the background. He learned about the adolescent brain and that skills like reasoning and judgment are still developing until the mid-twenties. He began to understand himself and the paths that led to his own crime. But perhaps most important, with the support of his classmates and instructor, James learned that he could learn—he passed the class with high marks and was encouraged to continue. Fortified by that achievement, James was ready to get serious and do whatever he could to ensure a successful future once he was released from prison.
UO Professor Steven Shankman had hosted Inside-Out’s founder and national director, Lori Pompa of Temple University, in 2004 when she lectured on-campus at the Oregon Humanities Center about Inside-Out and corrections education. Intrigued by Pompa’s enthusiastic description of Inside-Out, Shankman signed on for the instructor training at Pennsylvania’s Graterford Prison.
“I have to say, it was scary at first. I’d never been in a penitentiary before,” he says. But that fear quickly gave way to seeing opportunities. “Those guys have an incredible range of life experiences, and they brought that background into class discussions.” As a literary scholar, Shankman envisioned applying the inmates’ hard-knocks knowledge to deep reading of texts. Nationwide, most Inside-Out classes focus on criminology and criminal justice, but Shankman decided to highlight the works of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who spent four years in a Siberian prison.
He enlisted other UO faculty members to take the Inside-Out training and Richard Kraus, then-director of the UO’s Robert D. Clark Honors College, promised to support the program and promote it to honors college students. The UO’s first Inside-Out class was slated for spring 2007.
Katie*, carrying a double major in Spanish and comparative literature at the Clark Honors College, had recently entered the UO as a sophomore due to plenty of AP credits earned in high school. She had no qualms about the academic demands of the Inside-Out course; she just wanted to challenge the boundaries of her white, middle-class upbringing.
The first day of her Inside-Out class reminded Katie, bizarrely, of the boy-girl seating arrangement at a middle-school dance: Students were to sit in a circle of chairs, “outside” students alternating with “inside” students. “It’s a very intense experience to be in a classroom with people who are . . . so not who you think of as your peers,” she says. “It made me realize how many prejudices I had, and didn’t even know I had.” She doubted the Inside-Out discussions would be as deeply academic as those in her on-campus courses. Her honors college classmates expressed similar concerns, wondering what they would talk about with the inside students. What common ground could they possibly find?
James, enrolled for his second Inside-Out class, chose a seat next to Katie. From their reading assignment of 100 pages, the two had selected the same Dostoevsky passage to review for class that day, a section from The House of the Dead: “There are bad people everywhere, and good ones among the bad . . . And who knows? These people are perhaps by no means so much worse than [those] who have remained outside the prison. . . .”
Katie’s response echoed the sentiments of many in the class: “So here we are, together in our imperfectness. . . I am entering into a prison in a completely different set of circumstances than the narrator, but I come with a similar set of hopes and expectations . . . I hope that we find each other to be more similar than different. People are people. That seems to me to be the point of the passage, and a vital fact in living life.”
James noted his appreciation for the author’s point of view, the way that Dostoevsky’s characters always showed empathy for the viewpoints and emotions of other people. He also saw striking correlations between life in Dostoevsky’s Siberian prison and his own incarceration. “When Dostoevsky [writes about being] on the yard, feeling frustration with the inmates around him, or when he’s in the shower, disgusted with being surrounded by so many naked men, ” James says, “. . . we feel those same things. A lot of his experiences, though they happened so long ago and in a different country, are exactly how the prison experience is today.”
There’s a magic that happens during Inside-Out classes, says Shankman, and it’s different from what he’s seen in the many regular university classes he’s taught. “It’s incredibly inspiring,” he says. “People are able to be vulnerable. . . The texts are absorbed by the students and reflected in deeply personal ways; the writing is astounding. The students step up and do the reading not because they want to please the teacher but because they feel a responsibility to the other students, to be able to have good discussions.”
James knows that part of the magic is mutual respect felt by the two groups of students. “We can barely believe these people would leave their campus and drive sixty miles to have a class with us,” he says. “The books and the discussions are great, but maybe the best part is seeing that we can still think well, and learn, and communicate with people on the outside.”
After her Inside-Out experience, Katie remained focused on corrections education. In 2009, after taking a second Inside-Out class, she also completed the Inside-Out instructor training as one of the youngest attendees in the history of the program. As part of her Clark Honors College thesis, she and James (along with Madeline, another 2009 outside student) received permission to work together as editors on a student publication, Turned Inside-Out, which was published in June 2010, the same month that Katie received her bachelor’s degree (see Web Extra below).
James continues to take classes through OSP’s “College Inside” program. “I can’t walk from my cell to the yard, or from the yard to my job without being questioned by other inmates about my classes,” he says. “Tons of guys want to know how they can get involved, too.” He recently completed all lower-division requirements and is working toward his bachelor’s degree as classes are available.
*Inside-Out rules state that last names of students may not be used in the classroom. That rule is applied in this article as well.
—By Katherine Gries ’05, MA ’09