Essays from Inside Prison

Inside-Out letter from JamesThis article first appeared in Contexts magazine’s Winter ’10 issue.

This issue, Contexts is changing the format of our usual student essay. We received four extremely thoughtful—and handwritten!—essays from “Inside” students in response to our student piece in the last issue, and so we’re sharing their insights to give another perspective on this ground-breaking program.

In the fall 2009 issue of Contexts, Tasha Galardi, an Oregon State University student, wrote about her experience as one of the “Outside” students participating in the Inside-Out prison exchange course in Crime, Justice, and Social Policy. The course brought together students from OSU and students who are currently incarcerated for a 10-week, college-level sociology course. Galardi wrote that one of her reasons for taking the course was to challenge her own preconceived notions of prisoners. Learning sociological theories in dialogue and collaboration with the “Inside” students she got to know over the semester transformed Galardi’s ideas about crime (and criminals).

As we learned in the essays we received from “Inside” students, becoming an example of deviance or a topic of study, rather than simply a fellow student, did worry some of the incarcerated students before they enrolled. Doug Sanders, who has participated in two Inside-Out courses in his nearly 15 year stay in the Oregon State Penitentiary, wrote, “I didn’t know exactly what to expect being in a class with college students. Was this going to be an evaluation? A study? Was I going to be put under a microscope?” Another Inside student, Benjamin Hall, echoed Sanders’ trepidation: “Going up the stairs that first night of class, I was actually afraid. I was perspiring, and I was so worried [about] what these students would think of me.”

“After years of isolation from the outside world, all of a sudden I was sitting next to students from the campus who’d never experienced prison… other than what they’d seen on the nightly news,” said James Anderson, who has now taken three Inside-Out classes. “It was a new experience for all involved.” Anderson, too, was nervous about mingling with the Outside students: “As inmates, we were worried that we wouldn’t be accepted as equals in the OSU students’ eyes. Whether that came from having to wear our standard issue prison blues or simply from the stigma that being a prisoner carries, I don’t know.”

But it didn’t take long for barriers to break down as the Inside and Outside students began working together in the classroom.Anderson wrote, “So rapidly, those fears faded as our weekly classes turned into animated discussions designed around specific topics—as well as many instances of random laughter and high-fives as [all of] the students became a close-knit group, rather than two differing sides.” Sanders summed up, “We were all equals.”

The realization that they all shared a common role as students was, itself, an important lesson, David Spencer told Contexts. “The experience of Inside-Out shows the commonality that we as people share. It blurs the line created by socialization… ‘us’ and ‘them.’” As they read work by Emile Durkheim, Robert Sampson and John Laub, and Terrie Moffitt, the students talked with each other, week after week, about the sociology of crime and justice.

“There are over 30 theories of causation of crime… At first, I thought I should look for the one ‘right’ theory,” said Spencer. And Sanders wrote, “One would think that by living in prison, you would automatically know just about everything about prisons and the prison systems. I was wrong.” Working side by side with the OSU students, he described how “we were learning from each other, we were learning about prisons, the justice system, theories of crime, [and] crime prevention.”

The Inside students told Contexts that these classroom experiences not only brought the group of 30 students together, but also carried over to life inside the prison. “I have seen racial lines broken through these classes, men getting together in prison throughout the week, talking about the material, learning together, [and] developing social bonds,” Hall said. The process of learning about sociology together was challenging and exciting, Anderson writes: “It was often mentioned by both inmates and OSU students that we just wished our classes could somehow be longer. When was the last time you heard that about an educational class?” He also points out that, much as Galardi’s reading of theory made her think about criminals in new ways, the incarcerated students began to think about their own pasts—and their futures—differently.

“Because of the in-depth teaching, knowledge, encouragement, and hope… it has drastically changed my outlook. …Through class discussions and required reading, we’ve learned valuable insight into the causes and deep-seeded roots of our behaviors, and every inmate went through intense periods of self-examination as a result,” Anderson explained. “I can say with certainty that not one of us is proud of our criminal past.”

Sanders agreed. “Do I belong in prison to pay for my actions…? Of course I do. Am I someone who deserves to be treated anything less than human? Of course not.” Confident in his grasp of both the realities of his criminal past and the theories that criminologists have put forth to explain actions like his, Hall scoffed at the idea that the prisoners couldn’t better themselves. “I was surprised to learn how… typology theories believe change for the ‘life course persistent’ [is] not possible!” Looking to his reading list, though, he noted, “The very book we’re reading by Sampson and Laub—in many ways, their theories were proven correct right there by what we were experiencing in class. [They] said ‘what was lacking in criminology was a rich, detailed knowledge base about offending from those who commit crime, expressed in their own words.’”

Inside-Out allows incarcerated men and women to share their knowledge and gives undergrads the ability to reconsider all they’ve come to learn about crime and justice. And that exchange is transformative. All four of the men who wrote to share their thoughts with Contexts (and they did write, having no access to typewriters or computers) emphasized how Inside-Out influenced their vision of the future. Hall wrote that he came away with “different perspectives that opened possibilities I never considered.”

And, Hall revealed, “I keep a piece of paper in my cell. It has 168 people on it—it’s all the people it affects when I make choices. When I struggle with bad choices, I look at or think about that list. I have added … ‘the class’ to it because I want to… honor the people who invested in my life.” While he’s thinking moment-to-moment, Inside-Out has made James Anderson think about the bigger picture: “After taking [the] initial class… I began taking courses through a local community college. I’m proud to say that I’m well on the way toward earning two separate college degrees, and it’s directly because of the amazing opportunity I had [as] part of the Inside-Out program.”