Incarcerated students flourish in online Inside-Out program despite tech difficulties

A man wearing a blue jumpsuit and a blue mask sits at a computer.
Pitzer College’s Inside-Out program allows students from the Claremont Colleges to take classes with students incarcerated at the California Rehabilitation Center. (Courtesy: Pitzer College/California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Zoom classes aren’t exactly the traditional academic experience. But then again, the Inside-Out bachelor’s degree program has always carved its own path

Run through Pitzer College, the Inside-Out program is a degree-seeking education program where incarcerated students, or inside students, and students at the Claremont Colleges, or outside students, attend classes together. Pitzer partners namely with the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California. 

Transitioning the course from an in-person to an online format required a lot of adaptation, especially for students at the CRC. The pivot to online classes for inside students proved difficult at the outset, inside student Kenneth Butler PZ ’21 told TSL. Technological issues, which inside students could not fix on their own, impeded access to class sessions.

“There were a lot of bureaucratic things going on about who was going to do what and if we were going to be able to touch the computer,” Butler said. “We couldn’t even touch the mouse, because it had internet access. It was something new. The tech team had to come out and set up all the components, and they were just dragging their feet … and they would get to it whenever they wanted to.”

Inside students also all share one web camera, according to Butler, which interrupts things like breakout rooms and interactive class elements.

But being online was not all negative. Derik Smith, Claremont McKenna College associate professor of literature, said being online also offered new opportunities as to what kinds of courses and content could be taught to inside students, like his course Race and Gender in American Film.

“The interaction between the inside and outside students — there’s a richness there that you just don’t get in a traditional course.” —Nigel Boyle, Pitzer professor of political studies and administrator for the Inside-Out program

“When we went on into the virtual space and there was a level of technology available inside that hadn’t really been there before, I took advantage of that opportunity to try and teach this material that centered on film,” Smith said.

Additionally, the discussions and coursework in the Inside-Out courses were met with stellar reviews from both the professors and the students. 

Nigel Boyle, Pitzer professor of political studies and administrator for the Inside-Out program, noticed a difference in his class discussions compared to those in previous courses he taught.

“You have very different kinds of questions being asked, but then also, the interaction between the inside and outside students — there’s a richness there that you just don’t get in a traditional course,” Boyle said. 

One student brings experiences from both the inside and outside sections of the program. Michael Griggs PZ ’21, a formerly incarcerated New Resources student taking Boyle’s Carceral State in Comparative Perspective class, found that the format of the Inside-Out classes was unique compared to his previous correspondence courses and Claremont Colleges courses. 

“Going back and doing college on the inside with currently incarcerated students, I was really interested in the dynamic between inside students and outside students from both angles,” Griggs said. 

For some inside students such as Butler, their courses have also fostered a level of discussion and interaction that they had not had in previous correspondence courses. 

“[It’s] 100 percent better … With the correspondence courses, it’s just pretty much reading the books and writing down answers — you never actually get the chance to express yourself and to verbalize what you have learned,” Butler said. “On the Inside-Out [curriculum], it’s a lot of interaction. The participation requires that you vocally express what you’ve learned … You get a lot of feedback from the other students as well as the professor.”

And for outside students such as Rukmini Banerjee CM ’24, the discussions and courses feel just like any other Claremont College course, only with a few technical differences. 

“[I was surprised by] how similar it seems to a regular discussion at times … It’s very easy to forget,” Banerjee said. 

However, Smith said some aspects of the discussions can be difficult, especially when it comes to differences in experience and perspective among the students. 

“There are dynamics inside a prison when it comes to gender roles … [that] can always be difficult to really do justice to in a classroom, but because of the constraining elements of life on the inside, those kinds of issues can be even more of a challenge to talk about.”

But for Butler, these new experiences and ideas introduced in the Inside-Out courses are an opportunity rather than a problem. 

“I’ve been stuck and relegated to a certain group of people for the majority of my life,” he said. “Stepping inside the [Inside-Out] class in 2018 with [professor] Barbara Junisbai and the class of outside students who were all white women pretty much, except for two women of color — that was something different for me. It was outside my comfort zone. That experience alone brought a big change in me. I actually converted to feminism in that class.” 

For many of the inside students, it has been an opportunity like no other.  

“I’m just grateful to be enjoying this experience,” Butler said. “It’s something I would never have thought would have been possible. Growing up, I never had aspirations of going to college, and here I am sitting in a prison. I’ve been preparing myself because I’ve been studying, and on my own, I read a lot. I’m just curious about things, so when this opportunity fell in my lap, I was prepared, and I jumped right in. It’s been a joyful ride for me. I’m just grateful to be involved.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said Pitzer partners with the California Institution for Women as well as the CRC for Inside-Out classes. The Claremont College’s Justice Education Initiative does collaborate with the CIW but not for Inside-Out classes. TSL regrets this error.

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