The Criminal Justice Department is teaching a new course during the spring 2012 semester that will be taught inside of a Pennsylvania State Prison. The course is available to both university students and to the inmates of the prison in hopes that they will be able to help teach one another.
The program originated with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program which, according to their website insideoutcenter.org, “increases opportunities for men and women, inside and outside of prison, to have transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue, inviting participants to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern.”
Founded in 1997, the Inside-Out Program was created as an experiment to observe how college students and inmates worked together. Their goal was to allow all students to mutually benefit from one another in a safe and honest environment. Taken from their website, incarcerated men and women and college students stated that it “was simply not another learning experience – it transformed the way they viewed themselves and the world.”
The idea for the program first originated with an inmate, Paul, who is serving a life sentence at a Pa. State Prison. He believed that by combining college students and inmates, all people would have the opportunity to teach and learn by others. His vision was to create an environment that benefited all people involved and that allowed for honest input.
WCU is now participating in the Inside-Out Program, giving students a chance to become a part of the movement. The course is Restorative Justice, which “examines the use of restorative justice in the criminal justice system and its impact on the victim and victim’s family, offender, and community at the adult and juvenile level” (wcupa.edu).
The course will also examine the use of punishment within our criminal justice system. It will observe the history and philosophy of punishment. Within the classroom environment at a Pa. State Prison, students have the opportunity to hear inmate’s thoughts on what they think about our use of punishment.
Professor Brian O’Neil, a criminal justice professor at WCU, is teaching the course at Montgomery County Prison this upcoming spring semester. He was trained as an Inside-Out teacher two summers ago. “I have taught courses at correctional facilities several times in the past, but never at West Chester,” O’Neill said.
Since the end of the 2007-2008 school year, there have been more than 140 courses taught in 20 states at 37 different schools. More than 56 professors have joined the Inside-Out Program.
The course is limited to 15 West Chester students and 15 inmate students, however the course is currently full with six students on a waiting list. There are no requirements to join and no prerequisites are required.
“It is unfortunate, but inmates cannot earn any college credit for the class, but they will get a certificate and hopefully some confidence that they can do well in a college course,” O’Neil said.
This is a great opportunity for men and women, both inside and out of prison, to learn in a unique environment. It is a chance to listen to other’s experiences and insights on all sorts of topics. Although some may be hesitant to learn within the walls of a Pa. State Prison, this once in a lifetime experience will offer unforgettable knowledge that students would not be able to gain within a normal classroom environment.
Jen Mika is a fifth-year student majoring in English with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at JM653231@wcupa.edu.