5C Students Head Behind Bars For Classes

Pitzer College is launching 10 new “Inside Out” courses next year, which will allow for more than 100 5C students to take a class at two prisons, the California Rehabilitation Center, Norco and the California Institution for Women (pictured). (Photo courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Wikicommons)

More than 100 5C students are going to prison next year — for class.

As the latest step of a program launched in 2014, Pitzer College will be offering 10 “Inside Out” courses next year — four in the fall semester and six in the spring — which will allow more than 100 students to take a class at two prisons: the California Rehabilitation Center, Norco and the California Institution for Women.

They will learn alongside an equal number of inmates — or, as organizers call them, “inside students” — who will receive free academic credit from Pitzer for the course work.

The classes offered in the fall at CRC Norco are Linguistics Discrimination, taught by Nicole Holliday; Intro to U.S. Politics; taught by Thomas Kim; and HIV-AIDS: Science, Society, and Service, taught by Karl Haushalter.

Pitzer has offered three Inside Out courses a year since forming the program in 2014, according to Tessa Hicks Peterson, assistant vice president for community engagement. In the past, students took classes at CRC such as Prison Autobiography, Latino Politics and Linguistic Discrimination.

Pitzer’s program is modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Education Program, founded in 1997 by Lori Pompa, a criminal justice professor at Temple University. More than 100 colleges and universities now take part, though Pitzer is one of very few to offer credit to inmates for its prison-based courses. Ultimately, Pitzer is working with Norco Community College to set up a program providing admission to and credit transfer from Pitzer to a California State University campus for inmates upon their release.

“There have been over 10 such classes at the CRC already,” Pitzer College Dean of Faculty Nigel Boyle said. “In all case, the inside students, the outside students, and the faculty all say it was one of the best academic experiences they’ve ever had. I get to see all the teaching evals, so I can vouch for that. Plus every faculty member that does such a class wants to do more.”

Although students will be mixed with inmates in classes, Boyle said safety is not a major concern, because inmates are specially selected by prison officials.

“The education staff at the prison are in charge of selecting who can participate in the class, and the inside student must not have any behavior violation record,” he said.

Faculty and students are trained and prepared for the class, “but there has not been a single problem,” Boyle said. “Parents sometimes express a concern, but, in my opinion students are as safe taking classes at CRC prison as they are at any of the 5Cs.”

The inmates selected have all at least finished high school, and some attended community college.

By bringing two different groups together to share experiences beyond campus gates and prison walls, Pitzer aims to improve students’ understanding of others and sharpen their political and social thinking, according to Pitzer press release.

Giang Nguyen PZ ’19, who has participated in the Inside Out program before, said the students and inmates interacted well.

“We would chat casually at the beginning of each class, then have discussions which were initiated by the professor,” she said. “We managed to have normal and interesting conversations but I also felt that both parties were quite reserved.”

Simone Bishara PZ ’18, who took two courses through the program, said the experience was similarly impactful.

“It’s important to give prisoners an idea of what’s on the outside,” she said, “just as it’s important for us to realize what they have gone through. There’s a vulnerability, an openness that comes from the discussions we have there.”

The Inside Out program influenced Bishara’s future career plans.

The experience “changed how I see my future. I’d like to be a lawyer who focuses on prison abolition or criminal justice reformation,” she said.

The interactions with the inmates also had an impact on Nguyen.

“It was an important reflection on my own education and privilege,” Nguyen said. “To see inside students working so diligently and sharing their knowledge under any circumstances was inspiring. I remember one insider saying to me that ‘the chance to take this class is my light in prison. It keeps me alive.’ His words are unforgettable.”

Boyle referred to the feedback the inmates provided about the class.

“Some inside students commented on the power of the openness of their conversations,” Boyle said. “They said they felt like they opened up to one another and they felt like they were treated equally and that made them feel ‘normal’ and connected with the world outside.”

Bishara said the inmate she interacted with was surprised to learn people in the outside world cared about the lives of prisoners.

“He felt there was something on the outside he could be a part of,” she said. “His reaction reaffirmed for me that vulnerability and empathy exist in every corner of the world, including the really dark ones.”

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