Learning in lockup: DePaul students take classes alongside inmates

The Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois is designed as a panopticon, which allows prison guards to see the cells of inmates at all times. (Photo courtesy of DAVID LEVENTI)
The Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois is designed as a panopticon, which allows prison guards to see the cells of inmates at all times. (Photo courtesy of DAVID LEVENTI)

It’s a Friday afternoon in northeast Illinois, and 30 students gather for three hours to discuss their latest assigned Michel Foucault reading. A DePaul professor presides over the discussion and instructs the class to continue in small groups. Middle-aged men in uniform and mostly young women dressed in business attire begin to collaborate, their minds on their work, far from the 40-foot wall that surrounds the setting of their educational experience — Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security state prison.

In this moment, those who live on the inside and the DePaul attendees who are free to leave have the same status: students.

Inside-Out is a prison-exchange program that allows university students and inmates to learn together, from professors and from each other. The program began at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1997. Kimberly Moe, a philosophy professor who began the program at DePaul in the spring of 2012, said the curriculum is student-centered and discussion and activity-based.

So far, three courses have been made available at DePaul for students of all majors and chaplain-approved inmates to take: CSS 310 (Restorative Justice), CSS 311 (Masculinity, Justice, and Law), and CSS 312 (Law and the Political System). DePaul is one of only two colleges in the state of Illinois to participate in the program, which is expanding from Stateville to Cook County Jail this academic year.

To become a student in one of the classes, anyone interested must email Moe and set up an interview. All professors who taught the course emphasized the importance of any interested students not being voyeuristic.

John Ziegler, who taught the course on masculinity and is the Director of the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships at the Steans Center, said authenticity is essential for ideal candidates; students who desire to take the class should be fearless and inquisitive.

Christina Rivers, a political science professor who will be teaching the course on law in the spring, said she is looking for introspective and flexible students.

All students are subjected to a background check and complete extensive paperwork to be allowed access to the prison. Once a student goes to Stateville in a volunteer capacity, he or she can’t go as a visitor, and vice versa.

“When I’m sitting in that classroom, I sometimes forget that I’m sitting in a prison,” Griffin Hardy, a senior Catholic studies major who works with Sr. Helen Prejean and is a current student in Moe’s Restorative Justice course, said. Moe said the prisoners tell her they forget they’re in prison as well.

According to Hardy, the inmates are “very much engaged. They’re like any other student. They’re there to learn, they’re there to discuss what they’ve read…They do all the same work that we as DePaul students do.”

Hardy believes the importance of the program comes from the humanization of the inmates, or inside students, as they are referred to.

“It’s clear that society believes education is a way to get a leg up in life,” Hardy said. “Whether you are incarcerated or not, I think everyone has the same base desires to advance themselves in knowledge and wisdom, and this gives people who are incarcerated … that chance.”

mass incarcerationAll involved with the program point to this humanizing aspect of the courses as a major benefit. The need to humanize prisoners is a sentiment that has increasingly become more mainstream in recent years, with major publications like Vice coming out with a “prison issue” this past October. The issue featured an interview with President Obama, who has vowed to release 6,000 prisoners who have been incarcerated due to non-violent drug charges as a result of mandatory minimums put into place by “The War on Drugs” that began in the 1980s.

Ziegler, who has a copy of Vice’s prison issue on his desk, describes the inside students as thirsty.

“They sat on the edge of their seats, they were literally captivated by every word you said, and nothing gets past them,” Ziegler said. “They can read you, they can look right through you.”

Ziegler discusses the unique challenges of “deconstructing masculinity in a hyper-masculine place,” particularly when all but one of the DePaul students in his class were female. He said participating in rituals were essential to providing a safe space, particularly when one of his students was transgender, and transgender inmates are not allowed to participate in Inside-Out since they are in protective custody.

Ziegler said that once the DePaul students see the inmates as humans, “that’s where the transformation begins.”

“People are so much more than whatever they’re accused of or did,” Moe said.

Her focus on restorative justice is summed up by Hardy, who said, “people who are hurt go on to hurt others. People who are healed go on to heal others.”

In a restorative justice system, the victim and the accused come together to discuss the hurt that happened and figure out what would be the most constructive action to take to heal the damage. It’s a victim-oriented system, and professors and students alike who are involved with the program believe it can practically be applied as an alternative to the current retributive justice system.

Nico May, a senior peace, justice and conflict studies major and co-coordinator of a program called DePaul Community Peacemakers, said the inmates respond to the material and the discussion with DePaul students with joy.

“One inmate said, ‘Reading this material (about restorative justice) is like music to my ears,’” May said.

She said the program has been an “amazing experience” that has provided her an opportunity to take what she’s learning in more traditional classroom settings at DePaul and “see it firsthand through the stories and insights of my fellow inside students.”

May encourages a variety of majors to take the course, which can fulfill a Junior Year Experiential Learning credit, a Self, Society, and the World credit, or an elective credit if it doesn’t fulfill any major credits.

“Pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones is the best way to effect change,” she said.

Rivers said the idea of restorative justice is more popular in a Vincentian community like DePaul, but not nationally.

“One of the whole points is to break down perceptions,” said Rivers, referring to both how the non-incarcerated view prisoners, but also how prisoners view those who aren’t jailed.

Rivers believes the Inside-Out program can contribute to the changing climate of the national discourse regarding incarceration.

“There’s increasing recognition of the racial disproportionality and increasing recognition of the huge number of people being locked away for relatively minor offenses in this War on Drugs, and recognition that this war is not working,” said Rivers. “So it all has come to a head in the past five years, and I think public opinion has started to shift.”

The Inside-Out program also holds think tanks on Thursdays at the prison for alumni of the program. Topics range from a letter-writing campaign to Obama to discussion of how to transcend historical harms. These think tanks are hosted by Moe, who said that anyone interested in Inside-Out should only want to come to the prison in an educational capacity, not as an activist.

“The premise is that we’re equal,” said Moe. Inside and outside students do the same readings and the same assignments, and the outside students don’t meet outside of the prison. Dress codes are crucial,” Moe said. “They have to present themselves in a professional way on both sides.”

All information is kept private, and inside and outside students only know each other’s first names.

Moe knocked on wood when asked if there have been any problems with the program. She said there have been no major problems with Inside Out since the program’s inception in 1997.

Much like May, Hardy expressed gratitude for being able to interact with “the people that I advocate for on a daily basis.”

Hardy said she feels programs like Inside-Out are key to ending injustice within the prison system.

“It’s easier for the system to be perpetuated if no one knows what’s really going on,” Hardy said. “If you don’t know what’s happening, why do you care?”