Course mixes students for close look at prison system

By Laurel Thomas-Gnagey

As U-M students make their way five or six at a time into a large multipurpose room at the Macomb Correctional Facility, it looks like old home week as they greet awaiting classmates at an end-of-the-semester celebration.

There are no hugs or other physical contact—that is not allowed—but the huge smiles, friendly banter and easy conversation make it clear these “outsiders” from Ann Arbor have connected with the local “insiders” during the one-semester course conducted through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

In fact, were it not for the blue uniforms trimmed in orange worn by the inmates, it would be hard to tell the two groups apart. Conversations range from personal updates about life to talk about who’ll do what in the night’s planned presentations.

However, the 14 outside and 13 inside students, who by most definitions are from two very different worlds, don’t even know the last names of their classmates – a precaution taken to protect privacy and eliminate inmate-U-M student contact outside the classroom.

This December class was a bittersweet meeting; a celebration of their last time together after which there would be no further contact.

“They’re going to develop strong bonds that are going to end,” predicted Jeff Morenoff, the professor of sociology who taught the course, at the beginning of the fall semester. He was right.

“Inside-Out has been a bonding experience like none before,” outside student Meredith wrote in her end-of-class reflection. “I come from a background that’s completely different from most of the inside students, but we’ve made connections that are free of judgment.”

U-M student David said the time spent waiting for class to start made for the best bonding time.

“The camaraderie came when sometimes we were late and during the 10-15 minutes of just waiting. It didn’t come with the assignments we did or because of having anything in common,” he said.

But inside student Jordan found many things in common with the U-M group. “We had a lot of similarities to the outside students. I was in college when my case came up. They made the experience real good,” he said.

Getting There

Each week, the U-M students drove nearly 80 minutes each way to the facility on the east-central side of Macomb County. They had to arrive a good hour early to be processed through security a handful of people at a time. On the final night, with the extra guests, the process took even longer.

Strict guidelines limited what they could wear and bring in. No tight or torn clothing, no exposed skin, and no backpacks, purses or other personal items were allowed. Each student and guest had to remove coats, jackets and sweaters to be inspected, turn pockets inside-out, and receive a light pat-down. Pens and paper for notetaking were provided on the other side.

“You remember that you’re in a prison when you’re navigating the guidelines, going through security, and getting your PPD (personal protection device), but once class starts you forget where you are,” said outside student Gabrielle. “The camaraderie with the students in the class and the intense discussions make you feel like you’re just in any class.”

Many of the inside students were incarcerated for serious crimes. They expressed appreciation that their U-M classmates looked beyond their pasts and recognized them as peers.

“At the end of the day, these are human beings who made bad decisions,” said outside student Asma.

“They come in here and see us as humans, and come to understand the circumstances that made us make the decisions we did,” said Jemal, a member of the Macomb Theory Group that is described as a think tank that brings courses to the population at Macomb Correctional Facility.

Jemal and several other members of the Theory Group participated in the Inside-Out closing ceremony. “We’re here to see what they do. We ask questions to see if they’ve internalized it,” he said. “We can’t do anything until we get out, so we want to see what you [U-M students] do with this information.”

The Program

The Inside-Out program began at Temple University in 1995 and since has grown internationally to include more than 100 correctional facility-higher education partnerships. U-M Dearborn has a decade-old program with the Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit. Morenoff, who also serves as director and research professor at ISR’s Population Studies Center, said the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Course he teaches, Crime and Punishment, is the first for the Ann Arbor campus.

Morenoff said the program was initially intended to address prison recidivism — the tendency for those imprisoned to return after release—and developed with a job-training focus, in many cases. He wanted to bring it to U-M because of the community-centered learning opportunity it presented for students.

The U-M Inside-Out program is coordinated through the Center for Engaged Academic Learning, which provides curricular design support, student development workshops (for both inside and outside students), and coordination between faculty and the Macomb facility. Center staff members also handle the screening of both inside and outside participants. A second class is being offered this semester by Sara Ahbel-Rappe in Classical Studies, called The Socratic Tradition of Conscientious Objection.

In line with the national program goals, the idea behind the U-M fall class was to shed light on crime, justice, prisons and mass incarceration. Course topics included: what prisons are for, crime and the life course, an analysis of the criminal justice system, law enforcement, community, and social justice, myths/realities of prison and life after prison, and victims and restorative justice.

The last day of class was a closing ceremony during which five student teams gave final presentations on the work they did all semester that touched on those topic areas. The event was attended by several U-M leaders, including former Provost Martha Pollack, Sociology Department Chair Alford Young and ISR Director David Lam.

“This was amazing. I had no idea what a serious and intense course this was, and kudos to you for completing it.” Pollack told the group.

The theme for the five presentations was Collateral Damage of Mass Incarceration. One group addressed “when police justice becomes injustice,” a reference to recent headlines about high-profile police shootings. Another focused on the criminal justice process from arrest to sentencing and beyond, allowing the inside students to reflect on the statement “if I knew then what I know now.”

Other presentations addressed physical and mental health concerns of prisoners, the impact of rehabilitation on recidivism and desistance, and what it’s like behind bars for women and girls.

“The workload is intense,” Morenoff said, noting assignments include reading and discussing texts, writing papers and completing several projects. “They write weekly reflection papers. It’s been rewarding and brings a level of rigor that sometimes isn’t there.”

Changed Lives

Inside students reflected on the personal meaning of the course during the closing ceremony.

“It has given me a newfound sense of hope,” Ryan said. “It also provided a break from the everyday drag of prison life.”

“It has given me something to look forward to,” Drake said. “It’s also given me a new vision on my purpose once released.”

Some U-M students said the experience solidified career or personal objectives.

“Inside-Out has given me the tools to help start the conversation of prison reform and mass incarceration, as well as the foundations for beginning my own reform work post-graduation,” McKenna said.

“As a student studying law, justice and social justice, this class humanized it and brought it down to an understandable level,” said Meredith.

For many the highlight of the class was in the interactions.

“Some of us don’t even get visits from our own family. I’m thankful for my classmates,” inside student Benny shared with the group.

“Inside-Out taught me that it is impossible to separate experiences from opinions,” said outside student Francesca. “Every person in our class has a unique story—there is always an opportunity for common ground, no matter how vastly different perceived experiences may be.”

“I’d like to believe that Inside-Out has made me a more open-minded and less reserved person,” said outside student Andrea. “In life it’s easy and comfortable to stick with what you know, surrounding yourself with others who think, look, or act like you; Inside-Out challenged me to form relationships and learn from classmates who had different perspectives from my own.

Even the instructor was moved. “For me, every single one of you inside and outside students had to overcome a barrier. It’s very rare as an instructor to see your students go through that transformation,” Morenoff said at the closing. “I just had the most amazing experience in my academic life. This has been a transformative experience for me.”

Inside student Tony had but one word for what the experience has given him: “Hope.”

Course mixes students for close look at prison system