Class examines prison system from the inside-out
Associate Professor Coralynn Davis describes how students inside and outside of the prison system learn from one another in her Women and the Penal System class.
Posted: September 01, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: Senior News Writer Julia Ferrante was allowed to observe the class at the Muncy women's prison on the condition that she abide by the rules of the Inside-Out class. Therefore, inmates interviewed for this story are referred to only by their first names, and the details of their cases are not included.
LEWISBURG, Pa. - Nadia Sasso grew up in a part of Washington, D.C., where prison was a fact of life for many people, especially men.
Her life in many ways was shaped by the prison system. Seeing how difficult it was for family members to adjust to life on the outside after doing time motivated her to work hard to avoid a similar fate. It also brought her closer to her cousins, whom her mom adopted because of her uncle's struggles after prison.
Even so, Sasso, an English and sociology double major at Bucknell University, gained a new perspective this past spring on the prison system and how it affects people from the inside-out. She and nine other Bucknell students traveled to the State Correctional Institution at Muncy each Tuesday with Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Anthropology Coralynn Davis for the capstone course, "Women and the Penal System." In the class, Bucknell students sit side-by-side with women from the inside as together they learn about how gender, race and class come into play in the criminal justice system.
"Having family members in the prison system, I've been told all my life, 'You don't have to be there,' and that school was a way out of certain things for me," said Sasso, now a senior at Bucknell. "Growing up, you tend to think the person is flawed and that's why they are in prison. But there are so many factors, like resources of the community and their education."
The Bucknell course, co-developed by Davis, the director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program, and Professor of Philosophy of Religion Carol Wayne White in 2005 and now taught by Davis each spring, is part of the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, based at Temple University in Philadelphia. Inside-Out founder Lori Pompa came up with the idea 13 years ago after visiting a prison in Dallas, Pa., for a panel discussion with men serving life sentences. After a lively discussion, Paul, one of the men on the panel, suggested Pompa teach a similar class for an entire semester.
Pompa launched the program in the Philadelphia jails and later spearheaded its transformation into a national program with instructors in 37 states, as well as in Australia, Canada and Norway. The Inside-Out program seeks to "examine social issues through the prism of prison," Pompa said. Classes focus on an array of topics and disciplines, including criminal justice, anthropology, sociology, African-American studies, women's studies, history and economics.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about the Inside-Out program," Pompa said."One is that we are going in to study the folks on the inside. We are not going in to teach or help the inside students. We are not the 'scared straight' program for those on the outside. Inside-Out is not a whistle-blowing program, an advocacy or activist group. It is an educational program, period."
Inside-Out instructors set strict rules for their classes. Students are to call one another only by their first names. The inmates, or inside students, are discouraged from discussing details of their legal cases, and friendships may not extend beyond the class. To even the playing field during the class, the Inside-Out program challenges participants to drop the use of labels such as "prisoner," "inmate," "murderer," "convict" and "rapist."
"It is a very strange combination of getting intimate with one another and limiting certain kinds of information to protect everyone's security," Davis said. "But all of the students do the same assignments and work. The goal is not to differentiate, as much as possible."
Discussions in this course focus on how gender, race and class shape the prison system, as well as the experiences individuals and communities have with it. Course materials and discussions address the correlation between sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, and imprisonment, as well as changes from the earliest jails to contemporary facilities.
"A lot of what we talk about is painful," Davis said. "Sometimes, the inside students disclose how long they've been in. It raises questions about why we imprison people. Is it about punishment, individual rehabilitation or community restoration, and is it meeting those goals? The course is an intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual experience. Each time I come out, I am both energized and exhausted."
An inside view
Davis meets with the inside and outside students separately before bringing the groups together. Each student must sign a pledge to abide by the rules of the class and prison. The first time the outside students visit the prison they are fingerprinted and issued photo identification. They also are counseled about how to dress and behave.
The first visit to the Muncy prison was daunting but also more pleasant than Haakon Gould, Class of '10, expected. A political science major who aspires to be a lawyer for the U.S. Marine Corps, Gould had visited men's prisons during an internship with a Washington, D.C., public defender. He signed up for Davis' class to broaden his perspective.
"Actually being in the prison, you see how women incarcerated there are affected and how different it is for men and women," Gould said. "You also can see how widespread victimization is and often the victim becomes the offender."
Much like a college campus
Once an "industrial home" for women offenders in the 1920s, the State Correctional Institution at Muncy looks much like a college campus in the midst of the mild Pennsylvania mountains, with stone "cottages," real glass windows that open and let in light, a clock tower, recreation areas, a library and a chapel. The campus is surrounded by state-of-the-art security fencing, and visitors must pass through a metal detector and surrender extra possessions such as cell phones and cameras.
Three larger block-type buildings similar to those at men's prisons and to those depicted on television were constructed during the past six years to segregate inmates as they are evaluated for security risks and special needs. A pair of modular units also was added near the transitional cell blocks in 2009, a result of prison-crowding, which is a national problem.
One of two women's prisons and 27 correctional institutions in the state, the Muncy campus is a Level-4 security facility, meaning the 1,500 inmates, ranging in ages from 17 to 87, have been convicted of crimes from retail theft and fraud to murder. Currently, 148 are serving life terms, and three are on death row. More than a third of the inmates have been in prison before. Some are housed in units for treatment of drug or alcohol addiction or to cope with domestic violence or other forms of abuse. Elderly and disabled inmates live in an assisted living unit.
When they enter the prison, the women give up all their property; they are allowed to keep only a religious medallion, a Bible and a watch, if its value is less than $50. They are issued underwear and uniforms.
Most are given jobs or apprenticeships, such as cooking, sewing uniforms for state workers, or upholstering car seats. While wages are typically less than 40 cents an hour, the hope is that the women will gain skills and savings for their return to life on the outside, said Troy Edwards, the superintendent's assistant and prison spokesman. The prison also offers a parenting class and a "prison pup" program, in which inmates train canine companions. The Inside-Out class is the only opportunity for the inmates to be in a real college environment.
"This class is not like any other here, where the inmates can have intellectual discussions and learn about these issues in a practical way and gain skills for life after prison," Edwards said. "The Bucknell students also get to learn about the prison system from people on the inside, including a few serving life sentences."
The Inside-Out class destroys stereotypes - for Bucknell students who may have never been to a prison and for the inside students who have preconceived notions about college students, Davis said. The class inspires many to change the way they think about the world and to adjust career plans to address the causes and effects of incarceration for women and their communities.
Deconstructing those notions begins when the class meets together for the first time, Davis said. The students form two circles with their chairs, with outside students on the inside facing out and inside students situated around them facing in, so that the institutional placement of the two groups is symbolically reversed. Later, the class role-plays to examine issues such as the motives and consequences of crime and the meaning of justice.
Melissa Gelbart, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in women's and gender studies and environmental studies and now is attending law school, said the experience made her realize the need for educational programs and reform.
"I was struck by the politics that have evolved in the last couple of decades, with the war on drugs, minimum and maximum sentences and the way the jails have been used to dispose of undesirable people," Gelbart said. "I think it's incredible that Bucknell offers this experience. The bottom line from this class is that as students and as people who are actively engaged with society, we need to always question and think about things that we are taught to accept."
Sasso, who was selected through the Posse Foundation to come to Bucknell with a full-tuition scholarship, said the class made her think more than ever about how to make a difference. She plans to focus her career on developing community programs to address social issues that lead to incarceration.
"After taking this class, learning what I did and how applicable it is to my life, I don't think I would be happy with myself if I were not proactive about some of the issues we talked about," she said.
Learning from one another
The inside students said the class offers them hope and a chance to engage their intellects. One student, Tina, said the class allowed her to compare personal experiences with national trends and has inspired her to make the most of her freedom when she is released from prison. She was not so successful the last time she got out. The outside students, she said, also were able to learn about the realities of prison life, and "without prejudice, explore commonalities that exist between individuals - imprisoned or not."
"They (the Bucknell students) make me think maybe I could make a different choice," she said. "The idea of the Department of Corrections is to separate us from society. This is an outlet for us."
Teri, who has been at Muncy almost 40 years while serving a life term, said the students learn from one another.
"Being here as long as I've been here, the things I have seen and been through and experienced bring the knowledge to life for the Bucknell students," Teri said. "And they are a breath of fresh air. Very few conversations in the institution are educational. Coming here for two hours a week, it gives a lot of inmates here the hope that they can be that guy or girl. We talk to them on the same level."
Inside student Chanita said the class "keeps my mind fresh" and makes her want a better life. Chanita knows the challenges women face when they leave prison - from reunification with children, to the search for employment and affordable housing. Yet she is now more hopeful and determined to make it.
"After I committed my crime, I felt like I could never show my face again, and I just didn't care about anything," she said. "Everybody here is here for a reason, and there is a stigma. With this class, though, (the outside students) accept us. If they accept us, won't some other people?"
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