School Behind Bars: How College Kids and Incarcerated Youth Benefit From Learning Together
On July 8, several young men from the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility were tear-gassed by police after locking themselves in a room and refusing to come out. But it isn’t all violence at this juvenile detention center about 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon. One professor at Portland State University has given some of the young men who are incarcerated here an opportunity to take a college class with students who aren’t in trouble with the law.
Last winter, Arthur taught the University’s first “Inside-Out” class, which placed PSU students side-by-side with MacLaren inmates—youth from the “inside.”
“Most people have no conception of what prison is like.”
Programs like Arthur’s aim to shift the debate on criminal justice in the United States by building relationships between people in and out of prison. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world, with one in every 108 adults in America in prison or jail in 2012.
Arthur’s class placed 15 undergraduate students from PSU and 15 inmates from the facility together at “the station,” a former housing unit that is now used as a meeting room. All 30 students met at McLaren to discuss social justice movements like the supporters of DREAM Act and the Zapatistas, in order to understand how students could affect change in their own environments.
Gustavo Portillo-Soto, an inmate at MacLaren who took the class, had some apprehensions about the idea, but said he learned a lot from the experience. “I didn’t expect to discuss issues or ideas as one whole class,” he said. “I honestly thought that we were going to have a lot of disagreements between the people out there and the people in here.”
Portillo-Soto wasn’t the only one with reservations—students from both groups came into the class with assumptions about the other. But as the course went on, their ideas about each other began to change.
“I had my outside students telling me these guys are brilliant, and smart, and they had no idea,” Arthur said. “The inside students were telling me that these college students were accessible and kind.”
“It has a ripple effect”
Portland State isn’t the only university to offer an Inside-Out class. Universities across the country have offered similar programs; to date, more than 300 courses like this one have brought incarcerated and non-incarcerated people together to talk about and work on similar issues.
“You’re sitting next to someone’s father, someone’s sister.”
The first class of this kind was based in Philadelphia’s Temple University in 1997, when students from the university met with inmates inside a nearby prison to talk about criminal justice reform.
Though the coursework differs from class to class, stripping away preconceived ideas about prison inmates is a hallmark of the program. According to Alex Friedmann, associate director of the nonprofit advocacy group Human Rights Defense Center, getting to know prisoners is one of the crucial elements. Friedmann himself was incarcerated many years ago, and participated in an Inside-Out class.
“By bringing people from the outside in, it helps to humanize prisoners,” he said. “Most people have no conception of what prison is like because they have never been incarcerated.”
Friedmann says getting to know people who are incarcerated is important, especially for students of criminal justice, because recognizing how much they have in common with prisoners can and should inform the work that they do.
But Friedmann points out that it’s important for another reason too. He says it’s a mistake that policymakers typically craft legislation about the criminal justice system without input from prisoners. “Those who know the problems can help find the solutions.”
Friedmann also stressed that most prisoners will return to society once their sentence is served, and will become a part of our communities. So it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that prisoners receive the support they need to move beyond what put them behind bars in the first place so that they can be successful once they get out.
Sarah Allred, associate professor of sociology and department chair at Berry College, in Mt. Berry, Georgia, has taught Inside-Out classes for several years and is on the national steering committee for the Inside-Out Center. According to her, these types of classes are an essential part of turning the country’s mass incarceration problem around because they “make the invisible visible.”
“In one of these courses, you’re sitting next to someone’s father, someone’s sister,” Allred says, pointing out that those relationships aren’t usually apparent in representations of incarcerated people.
Allred says understanding this context “flips a switch,” and readies people to truly think about issues related to incarceration.
Beyond the relationships forged between “inside” and “outside” students, Allred says one of the greatest things that comes out of these types of classes is the confidence that both groups of students feel after completing them and the culture of positivity that they promote.
“I’ve had staff at the facility tell me they’ve noticed a positive difference—not just in the young men and women who participated in the class—but in their friends as well,” Allred said. “It has a ripple effect.”
From prisoners to change agents
Arthur has taught at PSU for more than 12 years. Before teaching, she was a criminal defense attorney in Portland—and the bulk of her work was defending juveniles in criminal court. Seeing the injustices within the court system became her inspiration for the new class, and she focused the readings and discussions around social movements throughout history, including excerpts from works such as Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Carol Estes’ “Who’s Afraid of Music” (an article originally published in YES!).
Griffin Thomas hopes to pursue social work once he finishes his degree.
Arthur’s goal wasn’t so much to give her students an understanding of the prison-industrial complex, she says, but to inspire them to realize they can each make a difference. “I wanted them to be able to say, ‘I am a change agent, and I can have an impact on this world.’”
Many of her students communicated a sense of empowerment and inspiration after completing the class.
Portillo-Soto said that before studying with Arthur he intended to live a “regular life,” like many of his fellow inmates aspire to.
“After I took this class, it opened my eyes. I started enjoying a lot more things, like art and public speaking,” he said. “The class helped me see the beauty in things … and [it made me] want to go out of my comfort zone to fight for something, to be part of something.”
For Portillo-Soto, the lessons on the movement for immigrants’ rights resonated in a personal way. “If I had learned about [the DREAM Act] when I was outside, I would have marched and become one of them,” he said. “I’m Hispanic, and I have family members who aren’t legally here. It’s something that I really want to fight for.”
Several students expressed interest in careers in social justice, particularly in the areas they learned about in the class. Pavel Bahmatov, another young man incarcerated at MacLaren, said he wants to learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline and help prevent people from going to prison. He is currently in a radio journalism class put on by Hope Partnership, and is trying to start a restorative justice program at the facility.
Griffin Thomas, also an inmate at MacLaren, takes college-level courses at the facility and is a year away from completing his bachelor’s degree in sociology. He hopes to pursue social work once he finishes his degree. “There needs to be more awareness for people who are incarcerated and how it works,” he said, “so we can prevent it from happening to more people.”
The class culminated in a community-based learning project that the students developed together. Arthur asked the students to choose an issue to focus on, and they picked environmental issues around MacLaren. They planted trees, both to replace those that had been overturned by storms or removed by the facility, and to draw attention to the need for an environmental management plan.
For Arthur, the most important thing to come out of the class was the way the students were open to learning about each other, and how their perceptions of each other changed.
“Once their ideas about each other shattered, and they could see each other as human, everything is different,” she says. “I feel like that happened.”