Students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have spent the spring semester getting an inside look at criminal justice in America, thanks to a unique program that brings inmates and college students together for a life-changing learning experience.
The Inside Out Prison Exchange Program is a powerful class format that brings inmates (insiders) and students (outsiders) together to learn about different topics in an academic setting; housed inside prisons. The program was founded in 1997 at Temple University in Philadelphia and seeks to address and break down stereotypes about prison life.
Dr. David Montague, director of online learning and faculty mentoring and a professor of criminal justice, is one of only three certified Inside Out instructors in Arkansas. This Inside Out class took place at the Hawkins side (women’s section) of Wrightsville Unit, managed by the Arkansas Department of Correction.
“The inside students do not receive college credit, but they do homework and cover course content at the undergraduate level, and some content up to the doctoral level,” Montague said. “The course goes through various themes each week, such as how children of incarcerated parents are more likely to go to prison, how women are treated in the criminal justice system, and criminal justice in other countries. We’ve talked extensively about what their lives would have looked like if they’d taken a different path in life. It’s an emotional topic.”
The UA Little Rock Inside Out course is held in partnership with the Arkansas Department of Correction. Billy Inman, who recently began a new job at McPherson Unit, served as the supervisor of the Inside Out class at Wrightsville.
“I think it’s a great program,” Inman said. “Any time that we can allow women to interact with the world, it’s a good thing. Any time we can allow incarcerated women to interact with the outside world is important. You tend to get caught in a vacuum when you are locked up. They really lose track of the world. For college students, it’s important for them to get to know these women. They become real people, not just someone who has been incarcerated.”
Originally, students had a class with the insiders once a week on Monday evenings at Wrightsville. UA Little Rock students said their preconceived notions of life in prison quickly went away.
“When we first went to class, we had a mindset that they are inmates and they are automatically bad people,” said Cassidy McArthur, a UA Little Rock student. “When we got to prison, we realized they are humans who have made mistakes. We hear their stories about how they got to where they are, and it’s really impactful. One of the insiders talked about how her parents were in and out of prison all of her life, and how that influenced her to be locked up. She has children, and she tells them to make better choices. She’s not there to raise her children, and she doesn’t want them to end up in prison like her.”
On the other hand, inside students appreciated the opportunity to show the college students that they are normal people, despite being incarcerated.
“We all collectively say feeling normal is what we’ve enjoyed the most about this class,” said Cat Clark, one of the inside students. “Everyone said the interaction is what makes you feel normal. For people who have never come to visit prison, there is a natural barrier between who we are as people and who they think we are going to be as people. That was gone after the first night. I think we all interact as friends or a family extension, rather than just a class.”
One of the inside students, T.J. Muffoletto, stated that it was hard to talk about some of the events in her past, but she was grateful for the experience of being in the class.
“I’m taking advantage of all the opportunities while I’m in prison to get ahead in life and not make the same mistakes I’ve made before,” Muffoletto said. “This class has brought out very touchy subjects. I’ve been so sad at times where I’ve really cried, and there were times that I was so angry because it was a sensitive subject that brought back trauma in my life and made me relive it. This was a life-changing experience. Thanks to Dr. Montague for letting me be a part of it.”
Each week, students go over readings provided by the instructor the previous week and discuss them as a class using specialized techniques designed to break-down barriers students might have in sharing their thoughts about criminal justice issues. It is an open environment in which mutual respect is required and the students tend to quickly forget they are even physically within a prison.
“I was excited to take this class to be able to connect face to face with these inside students,” said Amy King, a UA Little Rock student in the Inside Out class. “I was enamored that they were fellow college students like we are. I’m impressed with just how educated they are on the criminal justice system and are on the pulse of things that aren’t in our textbooks. As criminal justice students, we often encounter every part of the criminal justice system, except prison. This class has been a critical piece of well-roundedness in our education.”
Over the semester, King saw that the inside students really wanted to be seen as more than just inmates.
“I loved how much they wanted the opportunity to be seen as human and not inmates,” King said. “They want to be seen as women and adults and citizens and fellow mothers and college students, just about every label but incarcerated. This class gives them the opportunity to be heard and to connect with the outside.”
Once in-person classes ceased due to the pandemic, Warden Inman and the Arkansas Department of Correction worked to ensure the class could be held virtually. This has even included a poetry slam. To his knowledge, this is the only education class in the prison that has been held virtually since the pandemic struck.
“We missed one class initially in March, but we were able to use Blackboard Collaborate the next few sessions to hold the class virtually,” Inman said. “When the students had a scheduled poetry slam night, we went outside, and the women were able to read their poems to the other students. It really turned out to be a special night. Dr. Montague made the comment that if you didn’t know these women were in prison, you’d think they were just normal women out in the world. The coronavirus has forced us to be creative, but this is a good educational experience for everyone.”
Prison safety restrictions made it more difficult to hold the class in the final weeks of the semester. The inmates are in isolation in each section to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so Warden Inman would bring women from each individual section to speak with the class virtually.
“What you begin to realize is how important the outside students are to the women,” Inman said. “It gives them a chance to be normal and to talk to someone who is not incarcerated, who is not a corrections officer, and who is not a part of our system. They really began to look forward to it. The students really care for these women. Any way we can continue the classroom relationship is important.”
For Clark, building bridges with college students is a way to shine a light on incarcerated women.
“I wanted to join the class because I am a nerd and I like to learn,” Clark said. “I wanted students to know what it’s like from our side. We have dealt with the justice system in a different way other than just reading about it and studying it. I wanted to interact with people who could see how different we are and that we aren’t just a textbook or a statistic. Prison has turned me into an advocate for those who are incarcerated and for women. I want people to see that we are someone’s mother or daughter or sister and just an everyday person. We’re not monsters. We’re normal, everyday people.”