For a semester, now, 28 students - all scared at first - have pushed their chairs into a circle every Thursday night to begin their class.
A class inside a prison.
It's called the Inside Out Prison Exchange, with 14 "outside" students from East Central University, most with some background in criminal justice, and 14 "inside" students who are inmates at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, part of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
To both groups' surprise, the barriers separating them fell quickly, and attitudes about each other have changed.
"We sat in a big circle so we could communicate on an even field," explained Dr. Jaime Burns, ECU assistant professor of human resources and the instructor of the course. "On the first night, both groups were scared. They were looking down. There was no eye contact. Now, they shake hands."
ECU is the first university in Oklahoma to participate in the Inside Out Prison Exchange, a national program that works to change the perceptions of both the public and the incarcerated and improve the criminal justice system.
"We've been looking at things in a different way, in a way that looks at the criminal justice system more humanely," she said. "It's looking at people as people, not as they are portrayed in the media, but getting past the stereotypes and media images. We want to look at them as people, not as labels."
The students have talked about the challenges of the criminal justice system and where it needs to be, said Burns, who was trained to teach the course last January in Philadelphia.
The outside students traveled to Lexington every Thursday for the 7 to 9:30 p.m. class. Each group knows the other only by their first names, and no contact between the groups is allowed outside the class. Inside students are Level 4 inmates who have more privileges than others. Some may not be eligible for parole, but their crimes are never discussed.
"The Inside Out class offers offenders a chance to see themselves and their previous actions through the eyes of the public," said Randall G. Workman, warden of the LARC. "I think that not only will the offenders benefit from this experience but that the overall class will come away with a new perspective regarding each of these inmates who participated in the class."
That is the purpose of the program, Burns said.
"A lot of the ECU students will be cops or district attorneys, parole officers or U.S. marshals," she said. "It's beneficial to see that we all come from the same humanity. Some things the criminal justice system does well. Some things are not working. Being able to critically analyze things is important."
After meeting together, the students broke up into groups of five or six to discuss the topic given to them. Topics included victims and victimization, fair sentencing practices, solutions to prison overcrowding, the myths and realities of prison life, and whether prisons are doing a good job.
"There was a lot of discussion," Burns said. "Then we'd bring them back to the larger group and they would come to a decision about why they thought a person should have been punished, or why not."
The context of the crime also was considered, she said. "How did the crime affect the community? How did it affect them, and how can we use that to further the discussion about crime and justice?"
Burns said the warden indicated the program has completely changed the inmates' outlook on the outside world.
"What the inmates say about their victims is not 'what the system has done to me,' but 'what I’ve done to their families,'" Burns said. "They get a different view of themselves and society (from the class). It puts their crimes in a larger context about how their victims were affected."
Students who completed the course received certificates in a closing ceremony on Dec. 6 that was attended by Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
"That meant a lot that he was willing to take time out of his schedule to come," Burns said.
The course was a service-learning class, which meant students were required to reflect on their observations and experiences, as well as read books and write three-page papers each week.
"Education is never a negative factor," Workman said, "whether it is for the public or the offenders. The better educated the offender, the better person he will be when released back to society."
Workman said the joint class offers a positive aspect to offenders and fits the LARC's current directions toward offender "re-entry efforts."
Burns said the course projects were up to the students.
"We wanted them to think outside the box, to find creative ways to solve the issues of crime and justice and make society and communities a better place," she said.
The Inside-Out program was developed by Lori Pompa, a criminal justice instructor at Temple University and a former prison volunteer who began taking her students to a prison. One of the prisoners suggested that she create a program in which students could visit prisoners each week to talk about the prison system and its impact on society.
Pompa created Inside Out in 1997 and began training others to initiate the program at their universities in 2004. More that 30 universities are offering classes so far.
ECU plans to offer the course again next fall.
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