Class is in…Lockdown

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Students look at criminal justice from inside prison walls

Saint Joseph's students are learning in the most unlikely of places this semester, and what they're learning is likely to change them forever.

For the 14 SJU undergraduates enrolled in Susan Clampet-Lundquist, Ph.D., and Mimi Limbach's service-learning course, Inside-Out: Exploring Crime and Justice Behind the Walls, the conventional classroom has been replaced by the barbed wire and metal detectors of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, one of six jails in the Philadelphia Prison System. Once a week, the SJU, or "outside" students, meet 15 "inside" students, incarcerated men who have enrolled in the course as part of the Options Program, a prison drug rehabilitation initiative, for a rare learning experience.

"The goal of this course is to create a unique body of knowledge," said Clampet-Lundquist, assistant professor of sociology. "In order to accomplish that, everyone must be on equal footing. Part of that means shedding labels, like 'prisoner.' Both inside and outside students are open about times in their lives when they've been the victim, and when they've victimized others."

Unlike most university courses, where students can come dressed in their sweats from the gym, this course has a dress code. SJU students are prohibited from wearing the light blue color their incarcerated classmates wear, so as to avoid confusion. Earrings and cell phones are prohibited. Late arrival is not an option. The outside students must arrive thirty minutes ahead of time just to get through security.

The Inside Out Prison Exchange Program is the brainchild of Lori Pompa, criminal justice instructor at Temple University, based on a suggestion from a man named Paul, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania. Pompa has been bringing her students into prisons since 1993. Five years ago, with the help of a Soros Justice Fellowship, she devised a way to bring this teaching initiative to schools nationwide, with instructor training. There are currently more than 130 instructors from 33 states and abroad who have taken the Inside-Out training.

"It is a continual source of inspiration that so many people, both locally and around the country, are interested in this unique approach to learning about social issues," said Pompa. "I am thrilled with where the program has gone and excited about its future prospects.

According to senior sociology student Meaghan Gallagher, the experience has been eye opening on many levels.

"I was immediately surprised by how long people have to sit in prison awaiting trial," she said. "I always took the fact that we, as Americans, have a right to a speedy trial literally, I have learned that a speedy trial is unlikely if you are using a public defender.  Some of the men in our class have been waiting for a trial for over a year, and if they are found innocent, there is really nothing that will be done to compensate them for their time."

This past June, Clampet-Lundquist and Limbach participated in the training, an intensive 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., week-long preparation for and introduction to the course. They spent two days at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, Pa., with men serving life terms. The training is much like a typical Inside-Out course, with participants walking through a dialogic process in preparation for being instructors.

During the course of the semester, the inside and outside students learn about the causes and effects of crime, the prison system and restorative justice. Through readings and class discussions, students will grapple with tough questions. The idea is to analyze and critique the current criminal justice system, and to inspire them to be responsible citizens and champions of justice. But perhaps the most important results of the course are the human connections.

"I feel as though we have become a family in terms of how we treat each other," explained junior criminal justice major Lazaro Pineda. "We all treat each other with respect and dignity at all times."

"The inside students want to be known as unique individuals who are much more than a prison number.  In our early introductions, it seemed so important to them to let us know who they are, what they love, and what they feel," explained Limbach, placement coordinator for the Faith-Justice Institute. "The outside students are profoundly moved, so much so that to try to articulate their internal feelings and impressions is impossible, unless you are a student in the same class and understand the enormity of what is sure to be a transformative experience."

--Kelly Welsh '05 (M.A.)

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