On a gray, rainy fall day, 14 Bucknell students make their way tentatively down a long white corridor, past a sign posted beside a security door:
If you have integrity, nothing else matters.
If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.
On their left they pass what looks like a high-school shop class — except all of the “students” working the machines wear brown uniforms with D.O.C. (for Department of Corrections) on the back. The Bucknellians enter what looks like a traditional classroom, with a desk near the door where a prison staffer sits, a blackboard and circle of desks. Seven men, wearing smiles and those same brown jumpsuits, extend their hands to welcome the students. Professor Carl Milofsky, sociology, who teaches this class at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Coal Township, 28 miles from Lewisburg, asks the students to sit between the men.
The students learn at the outset that these men love dogs for the comfort they give. Some have children. And grandchildren. And all, like Sam, whose impressive height, posture and hoary beard lend credence to his nickname, “the dean” of the group, have something else: a life sentence.
“My name is Sam, and I’m 50 years in jail. My major is freedom,” he declares, after the student to his left introduces herself as an animal behavior major.
Milofsky is the most recent Bucknell professor to offer a class through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, an endeavor pioneered by Lori Pompa at Temple University in 1997. In the last 20 years more than 35,000 “inside” and “outside” students nationwide have taken classes in a prison setting through the program.
A Commitment to Prison Education
A few hundred of those outside students have been Bucknellians. In spring 2006, Professors Coralynn Davis, women’s & gender studies, and Carol White, religious studies, taught the first Inside-Out class at SCI Muncy, a medium/maximum security prison that houses about 1,450 women, located 22 miles from campus.
Davis, who has taught the class 10 times, says, “It gives an adrenalin shot to the way I teach. I ask myself, ‘What pedagogy do I use in this situation?’ The teaching strategies I’ve tried out are things I’ve subsequently tried out for other courses I teach at Bucknell.”
The faculty director for academic civic engagement points out that one of the many ways Bucknell has supported the program is by purchasing textbooks for students on the inside. She holds up a copy of Women and Crime: A Text Reader, saying, “Whatever is written on these pages comes alive in the class. The statistics about the disproportionately harsh treatment of black women in prison, for instance, is borne out in stories shared by inside students. For the outside students, this humanizes the people who commit crimes. The takeaway for the Bucknell students is, ‘This could have been me.’ ”
That was precisely what Nadia Sasso ’11, an English and sociology major, thought as she sat in Davis’ Muncy classroom eight years ago. A child of African immigrants, Sasso is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Africana studies at Cornell University. Sasso was then a senior from the Washington, D.C., metro area who was able to attend Bucknell through the Posse program.
A ‘Lived Reality’
“I was learning about subjects that were almost a lived reality for me,” she reflects. “When you grow up in an underprivileged neighborhood, you don’t understand how the various infrastructures impact how you end up. The ramifications go unnoticed, because it’s so normal” to have family members in prison.
Most of the inside students in Sasso’s class were black or Hispanic, reflecting the racial composition of the five prisons in or near Union County, where Bucknell is located. Besides Muncy, there are two federal facilities, United States Penitentiary (USP) Lewisburg and USP Allenwood, which has three separate divisions.
“Our presence meant a lot to the women,” says Sasso, who was among a few other Posse Scholars in the class. “They were proud of us, for sure. That’s why they took an extra step to encourage us and make sure we didn’t end up where they are.
“Until they took that class, they didn’t know how racism and sexism were impacting where they were at the moment,” Sasso adds. “If you come from a certain neighborhood, it’s hard to rise above. They educated me by being able to connect the dots for me.” The class has a lingering resonance for Sasso, as some of her family members are currently incarcerated.
‘There for the Grace of God …’
Professor Kim Daubman, who regularly offers a positive psychology class at SCI Muncy, says, “Bucknell students experience growth in empathy and a greater appreciation for the notion, ‘there for the grace of God go I.’ It surprises them that they feel so close [to the inside students]. They come to appreciate that a person’s life is powerfully shaped by their early experiences, that there is more to these women they talk to than the crimes they have committed.
“The Bucknell students self-report that it’s a pretty powerful course, where they use the skills they develop in class to be more thoughtful about how they are spending their days,” Daubman adds.
Brandon Williams ’15, an education and psychology major, was one of three men who took Daubman’s class in fall 2013. “I took things from [the inside students] that helped me,” he says. “We weren’t there to help or study them; we were there to learn with them. They still felt they were contributing something and took their work seriously. Seeing inmates doing their homework and doing a good job motivated me to keep up. Engaging in that class also gave me some tools to apply to the first job I had.”
After earning a master’s in addiction counseling from the University of Minnesota, Williams became a drug and alcohol counselor at the Carbon County Correctional Facility in eastern Pennsylvania. He spent two years there before recently taking a job with an inpatient drug and alcohol facility. Someday, he says, he would welcome working again at a larger facility. “I love working with that population,” he says.
There is no known written history of Bucknell’s long-
standing connections to the local prisons, so for this article, I consulted the authority recommended by many faculty who are now involved. This summer, Professor of Chemistry Emeritus Ben Willeford, a genial social-justice activist, held forth in his well-preserved Southern accent about long-ago classes taught by Bucknell faculty at USP Lewisburg — and on campus. Willeford, 96, passed away eight weeks later, on Sept. 22.
According to Willeford, who came to Bucknell in 1950, “There was a time back in the ’50s when Lewisburg was a low-security prison, and prisoners who were close to being released were allowed to come to campus to take courses. Also, Bucknell professors would go out and give courses.”
One of Willeford’s favorite stories concerns Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious union leader who was sent to Lewisburg in 1967 to serve a 13-year sentence for involvement in organized crime.
Sit down, Jimmy Hoffa
“Professor John Anderson of the economics department was giving a course, and Jimmy Hoffa was in his class,” Willeford said. “John was interrupted by Hoffa, who kept popping up to say this, that and the other thing. At one stage, John says, ‘Oh, Jimmy, sit down. You talk too much!’ John came back and told some of us, and I said, ‘That might have been one of the biggest mistakes you ever made in your life.’ As far as I know, no repercussions.” (Hoffa left USP Lewisburg in 1971, after President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence as time served. Hoffa disappeared in 1975, and his body was never found.)
Today, USP Lewisburg, a stately red-brick complex built in 1932, is a maximum-security prison. Bucknell professors no longer teach there, although some, like Willeford and Milofsky, have provided encouragement to inmates by meeting with them through the local Prison Visitation and Support program. Other Bucknell faculty and staff reach out to incarcerated persons through the Lewisburg Prison Project, a prisoners-rights organization founded in 1973.
Milofsky’s visits with incarcerated men at SCI Coal Township led him to take the 60 hours of training in Philadelphia required to teach classes through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Among the program’s requirements are that outside students dress modestly, refrain from exchanging contact information with inside students and not ask about crimes the insiders committed.
Milofsky, a trim man of 70 with bright blue eyes, has long been involved in the blighted coal region where the state men’s prison is located. Like several other Bucknell faculty members, he works with the University’s Coal Region Field Station in Mount Carmel, Pa., to improve the lives of the area’s residents, many of whom are struggling with opioid addictions and lack of employment.
Inmates Offer Aid
SCI Coal Township’s superintendent, Thomas McGinley, a peppy, approachable man from the nearby, now-abandoned town of Centralia, commends Bucknell’s efforts to revitalize the economically depressed coal towns. He saw opportunities to connect the highest-performing men under his charge with Bucknell’s programming in Mount Carmel.
Members of Lifeline, inmates who model good behavior and make positive contributions to prison life, raise money for charities and special causes by selling products and donating their profits. McGinley says he encouraged them to give their proceeds — $3,000 to the Bucknell-led athletics camps, held through Mount Carmel’s Mother Maria Kaupas Center, and $1,000 to the Mount Carmel Food Pantry that a Management 101 class reorganized to be more efficient.
“These are the sorts of things I want my inmates participating in,” says McGinley. “They want to be a part of the betterment of the community, and I think that’s what’s outside the public eye a lot of the time.”
Lifeline members knew Milofsky from his prison visits and asked him to develop a college course. The inmates’ interests dovetailed neatly with those of their superintendent, who moved to SCI Coal Township from SCI Muncy three years ago. At Muncy, McGinley, who was a program manager and then deputy superintendent, observed the positive impact Coralynn Davis’ classes had on incarcerated women and says, “Starting an Inside-Out class was a no brainer for me, just from my experience at Muncy.”
Milofsky dipped his toe into prison teaching last spring when he offered his first prison-oriented course, Deviance and Identity. In that class, eight students traveled with him to SCI Coal Township to meet with Lifeline members, while four others went to another Lewisburg-area prison, the high-security division of USP Allenwood, which, like SCI Coal Township, opened in 1993.
Teaching Behind Bars
Alex Jordan ’19 was among those who visited Allenwood every other week to talk with the men about their goals and to teach them topics in math, science and American history and literature, as well as basic literacy and grammar.
“When I look back, that was by far the most difficult thing I’ve done,” says Jordan, a former football player who is a political science and sociology major, a Bucknell executive intern and a Coca-Cola marketing intern for Bucknell Athletics. “It was one of my most rewarding experiences at Bucknell, and it sure makes for a great story: ‘I worked at a prison,’ ” he says with a smile.
At first, says Jordan, he felt intimidated walking into prison, but the incarcerated men “pulled up a chair for us. They made a conscious effort to make us feel comfortable. They were very intelligent; they just needed help with connecting the dots. We found ourselves learning from them.”
In one session, a student asked who the greatest conquerors were. “We talked about Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great,” Jordan says. “One inside student said, ‘They stole people’s lives, and they were referred to as heroes. And I’m locked away. This is an example of the cherry-picking of reality we see throughout history.’ ”
Jordan says most of the men he met at Allenwood were, like him, black. “We’re 13 to 14 percent of the U.S. population,” he says, while 38 percent of U.S. inmates are black, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “This is indicative of unfair policing and so many of the broader sociopolitical and racial issues we’re experiencing in America right now,” Jordan says.
His experience in Allenwood, he says, “has made me think about working in the federal government toward educational reform.”
Lina Hinh ’19, another student in Milofsky’s spring class, joined the sociologist at SCI Coal Township, the medium-
security prison where 2,400 inmates live. There she met Sam and David, two polite men who’d spent decades in prison for crimes committed in their youth and for which they had received life sentences without possibility of parole.
A Change of Heart
“Hearing Sam's and David’s stories changed my mind [about rehabilitation],” says Hinh, a Community College Scholar majoring in sociology and women’s & gender studies. “In the United Kingdom, prisoners who serve 10 years can go for a pardon. If the UK can let people go after 10 years because the officials feel they are rehabilitated, why can’t the U.S.?
“The class opened my eyes to the falsehoods that a lot of politicians have said about people in prisons,” says Hinh, who wants to work in public policy to help victims of human trafficking. “Working with the prison group made me realize that I need to stay in this field. A lot of trafficked people end up in prison.” Being in the course, she says, “also made me realize the people in prisons are humans and not animals, which is how the media portrays them.”
Exploding Media Distortions
The distorted image of prisoners and prison life was an oft-mentioned topic as students traveled in a white Bucknell van driven by Milofsky on their way to their first Inside-Out class.
Ella Ri ’19, an accounting & financial management major, says her fascination with the Netflix series Orange is the New Black “got me more interested. I don’t think TV accurately depicts prison life, and I wanted to learn what’s really going on. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can take classes in a different area than my major, which is why I love the liberal arts.”
Virginia Whelan ’19 spent two summers working in a nonprofit for rehabilitated inmates. A history and sociology major, she says she wanted to “experience firsthand how people can change and to see them as humans even though they’ve done something wrong.”
Preparation for a future job counseling people with mental illnesses inspired psychology major Kelsey Birmingham ’19 to take the class. Her goal for the course, she says, was “to prepare me to work with people in high-stress situations.” For a required class project, where the inside-out students are divided into mixed groups of seven, she says, “I hope to come up with a plan to help with their rehabilitation when they get out.”
That rainy day in September, as the Bucknell van travels past a coal mine and turns left then right into the prison parking lot, Milofsky briefs the students: “No one in the inside group feels they deserve what they’re getting. They feel they have reformed. You will meet these guys and like them, but don’t forget they’ve been involved in a terrible crime. You will meet men who are very humane, broadly read; they’re just locked up. You’re the only breath of fresh air they get.”
A Breath of Fresh Air
After trudging through the security doors, down the long corridors and into the classroom, the students also receive a breath of fresh air. There’s Tito, the jokester who introduces himself: “I’m a lifer, been down 22 years. I’m an artist, I love long walks on the beach, working out and creating good bonds.”
And they encounter Gary, the only white member of the inside group, who works in the prison library helping other men with their cases. He tells the students, “There are good people inside who made a split-second decision that brought them here.”
They meet Dave, who shares that “we don’t take time for granted,” and Craig, who notes, “as I do my time in here I start to reflect about all of the mistakes I’ve made.” Through his work with the Lifeline group, “I have the opportunity to repair what I have destroyed.”
Dave, the most talkative of the insiders, articulates many of their feelings, saying, “We want to change your ideas about people in prison. We’re not all the same. You’ll see that on display here. But none of us have the mindset where we have given up. We still have a sense of life, a sense of self. In common, we all want to be free someday.”