This fall, 26 individuals are participating in a course not on a college campus because 13 are from the “outside” – meaning 13 students from La Salle University – and 13 students are “inside” – meaning inmates – at a prison in Philadelphia, part of a program called Inside-Out.
The Inside-Out program began in 1997 at Temple University, under the leadership of Lori Pompa. The program brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study as peers in the context of an academic course, held behind prison walls. In 16 years, the program has expanded dramatically and Inside-Out courses are taught all over the country and in virtually every discipline.
“La Salle University is a natural home for Inside-Out courses, given our mission and commitment to providing educational opportunities to all individuals, particularly those who have been underserved and or who may face special challenges,” said Heather McGee, Director of Community Engagement and Service-Learning at La Salle. She and political science professor Miguel Glatzer are team-teaching team-teach the course, which is titled, “Incarceration Nation: The Politics of Justice in America.”
The 13 La Salle students applied for admission to the course and went through an interview/screening process with both instructors. (Weekly classes began on August 26. The program does not identify the prison involved in the course, but it is located in Philadelphia.)
“Regarding the interview process, we wanted to have a face-to-face, sit down discussion with each prospective student so that we could explain the specifics of what would be involved in the course, such as the setting, the schedule, the course structure, since it is not your typical course,” McGee said. “We wanted to make sure that they knew what they were signing up for before they registered. We were also curious about their academic interests and how this course might relate to their studies. We ultimately had more interested students than we had slots and so we created a waitlist for the course.”
The incarcerated students were screened by a prison social worker before they could register for the course.
McGee says the course will examine mass incarceration in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of every 31 adults in the country is under some form of correctional control.
“We hope that students come away with an increased awareness about the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, as well as the varied goals and strategies of the prison reform movement. We will ask students to examine the nature and function of prisons – do they exist primarily to punish offenders, deter crimes, or rehabilitate offenders. We will also ask students to reflect on the role prisons out to play within a democracy,” McGhee said.
Teachers in the program have to complete 60 hours of instruction through the Inside-Out Training Institute in Philadelphia before being certified to teach in the program. McGee, Glatzer and another La Salle professor, Caitlyn Taylor, an assistant professor in La Salle’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice who studies prison issues, completed their training this summer.
Sierra Applegate, a senior criminal justice major in course, said, “I am very impressed with how much we have all learned from one another, especially what the incarcerated individuals have taught us. We get to see the criminal justice side from their perspective, such as how hard it is for them to reintegrate into society. How difficult it can be for them to succeed on the outside and not regress (back into crime).”
“I feel honored to be a part of a class with such an interesting dynamic of people, who come from all walks of life but have such strong opinions about the politics within our society that impact all of us. The most interesting thing we have discussed so far is this new idea of a racial caste system that exists within prisons. While in class we were required to think beyond the surface and examine whether or not we truly live in a color blind society. And that is what I love about this class is we have such rich discussions, but as students we are required to think deeper about the current issue of mass incarceration,” said Applegate, who is interning this semester with Community Legal Services, an organization founded by the Philadelphia Bar Association to provide free legal services, in civil matters, to low-income Philadelphians.
La Salle University was established in 1863 through the legacy of St. John Baptist de La Salle and the Christian Brothers teaching order, which St. La Salle founded in 1680. La Salle is an educational community shaped by traditional Catholic and Lasallian values.