By Marianne Doherty
Postgraduate Research Student in the School of Applied Social Sciences
I never thought I’d find myself thanking anyone for sending me to prison, this is most definitely a first. In June I attended a training course in Philadelphia which focused on The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (I’ll elaborate on this later). This opportunity gave me a fresh insight to a course which I have been researching for the last two years and allowed me the chance to interact with an international collection of scholars, including Lori Pompa, the founder and director of the Programme.
I have had the great privilege of teaching on the Programme here in Durham but for those who are unfamiliar with it, an Inside-Out class typically brings together two groups of students to learn a course together over an average period of 10- 15 weeks. One group consists of university students, the other of incarcerated men or women and the class takes place inside a prison but, what makes the Programme unique is not the make-up of the class, it is the power of its methodology which students and facilitators globally describe as ‘transformative’.
To date, the class operates across 34 US States, 6 countries and 3 continents: its alumni exceeds 30,000 students. Over 100 correctional institutions have sponsored classes across 30 different disciplines and there are almost 800 trained instructors and over 24 think-tanks. Research in the area is beginning to expand and there are already 5 dissertations at the Undergraduate, Masters and PhD levels and 1 really great book which I have read probably more times than I care to admit (it’s called ‘Turning Teaching Inside-Out’ and you can buy it and read more about the origins of the Programme here: http://www.insideoutcenter.org/index.html).
On the 25th June I arrived at the Inside-Out Training where I would hopefully, after seven days of tuition, qualify as a trained instructor. The training site was situated within a beautiful Quaker estate, Pendle Hill in Philadelphia (Figure 1).
After the initial greetings and induction from members of the Inside-Out team, I made my way to the training room where I took a seat in a large circle typical of an Inside -Out class (Figure 2). As the ‘classroom’ filled up I became acutely aware that I was now a student on the course, here to learn and to participate. While I was excited to spend my time learning with a group hand-picked by Lori and her team I was apprehensive about seven packed days of intensive group-training, three of which would take place partially within the maximum-security prison, SCI Graterford.
As Lori addressed the group for the first time, she explained the purpose of the circle. On a purely physical level a circular seating plan forces people to face each-other and, in a true Inside-Out class it often forces students to face their fears. On a much deeper level the intention is to create equality within the room, to make students aware of the value of their voice. To remain silent in this group is to deny the other members your contribution which affects the entire learning experience. While it can be argued that this form can make people feel self-conscious and over-exposed, during my experience, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly my feelings of apprehension and self-doubt dissipated. We used a weighty Irish stone as a talking piece, whoever held the stone addressed the group – a simple feature which added some structure to our sessions. As we took it in turns to contribute, sharing our reactions, opinions, and experiences more commonalities than differences started to appear . We collectively began to relax and feel more comfortable around each-other – together, we had created the ‘safe space’ I had been reading about.
During the training, I learned a variety of new skills including: how to build a curriculum; how to facilitate difficult conversations; how to manage a group of learners and importantly; the difference between ‘talking at’ and ‘talking with’ individuals and groups. Beyond those important, intended lessons, I also encountered an unexpected lesson, one which I didn’t think I needed to learn: I learned how to work in a group. Groupwork is not something I enjoy, I much prefer working individually and I never thought I would have needed lessons on collaborating – I most definitely did.
Towards the end of the training sub-groups developed their own activities with members of the Graterford Think-Tank, each requiring the rest of the class to play the role of the Inside-Out students. As groups enacted their exercises, it was clear the we had all navigated the same issues: who would speak, when and for how long. As we gave each-other critical feedback I felt at ease in this group, I felt among peers and even though I was in the prison, I felt as though I didn’t want to leave.
Returning to Pendle Hill
While the training was every bit as intense as I was told it would be it was also unexpectedly emotional. In any other environment I might have felt overwhelmed (especially as I was conducting interviews for my thesis research between sessions) but I avoided this by taking time to explore Pendle Hill (Figure 3) and taking in the beautiful surroundings. The organisers had really thought this location through – this was precisely the right place to accommodate our needs throughout the week.
After the training I travelled into Downtown Philadelphia to carry out some more PhD interviews and was fortunate enough to take in some of the city’s sights (Figure 4).
The city is bursting with culture, and is home to some of incredible displays of street art (Figure 5).
Figure 5- One of many murals in Philadelphia
While I was there I interviewed inside Philadelphia’s City Hall (Figure 5) and in ‘Love Park’. The information I received during these interviews exceeded my expectations in the sense that it took my research in directions I could not have imagined.
I am profoundly grateful for the funding I received to make this pipe-dream a reality and for the unwavering support from my supervisors (Professor Roger Smith, Associate Prof. Ivan Hill & Assistant Prof. Catherine Turner). This opportunity will undoubtedly assist me as I continue to complete my PhD research in the Law School and SASS, at Durham University. For these reasons, I must express my sincere gratitude to The Inside-Out Centre at Temple University (for awarding me a scholarship to attend the training), as well as to The Norman Richardson PGR Fund, The ArkLight Travel and Research Award, and SASS (for additional funding support). Without this support I would not have been able to attend. For further information about my research you can contact me via the details below.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.