Prison from Inside Out
Photo composite by Shawn McAfee
by Grace Lim
COLS Special Reports
Taycheedah: Wisconsin's largest maximum and medium security prison for women and the site for an innovative University of Wisconsin Oshkosh class that brings inmates and students together as peers.
No Judgment Zone
In a place where all residents had been judged and sentenced, there is one room in the Taycheedah Correctional Institution where judgment is checked at the door. This is the room where 10 female inmates and 10 University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students came together to learn alongside each other with the help of their instructor, Dr. Carmen Heider.
The class -- officially listed as a Communication/Women's Studies 316 -- is part of the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange program that brings college students together with incarcerated people to study as peers behind prison walls. And behind these walls, the students discuss issues of crime and justice. Heider's class, which took place in Fall 2009, was the first Inside-Out program held in Wisconsin. The national program is based out of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa.
Heider says she was attracted to the program because of the working-and-learning-as-peers element. "What made me really excited about Inside-Out was the idea that that it was for an entire semester and that it wasn't a group of university students and a university professor going into a prison for a day or two," Heider says, adding that such short visits often make inmates feel like research subjects.
In this course, the inmates are enrolled as UW Oshkosh students and receive three credit hours upon completion. The program is co-sponsored by UW Oshkosh, the Department of Communication, the Women's Studies Program and the Taycheedah Correctional Institution. Taycheedah, which is based in Fond du Lac, is the largest women's maximum and medium security prison in Wisconsin holding more than 600 incarcerated women.
To establish an egalitarian and respectful environment, Heider asked the students to refer each group as "Inside" students or "Outside" students. She also required her "Outside" students to wait until their weekly class at Taycheedah to ask questions because then "everybody had the same expectations and the same limitations."
The Outside students also are not told of their Inside classmates' crimes. Lori Pompa, founder and national director of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, says such information is not relevant to the class. "A major part of the philosophy of our program is that it is an opportunity for people on both sides of the prison wall to come together to learn as equals," she says. The withholding of such information, Pompa says, allows the students who are incarcerated to be defined "as students with abilities and assets, rather than the usual bottom-line description as liabilities, defined by one of the worst moments in their lives."
In an interview with COLS Special Reports Producer Grace Lim, Dr. Carmen Heider, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, and other participants of Wisconsin's first Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program share how this class transformed the way they view themselves and the world.
The video is also available for download to your iPod through UW Oshkosh iTunesU (requires iTunes).
Heider says it was understandable for some of her Outside students to come with preconceived notions about prisoners and prison life. "If we don't know anybody in prison, we have an image of what a prisoner looks like, and it's often a monster or somebody less than human," she says.
Amber McCormick, one of the Outside students, says, "I did go in there having a certain stereotypical view of what an inmate would be like, but I came out to find that I was very wrong, which is a good thing."
McCormick, who is a senior majoring in speech communication, credits the course for transforming the way she views the world. "I got the opportunity, the rare opportunity, to go inside and really see what it's like to be in there," she says. "It wasn't a second-hand view or a media portrayal of it. It really made me guess how I view everything."
Her views on people in prison definitely changed, she says. "It's easy to sit in your living room and to see someone, an offender, pop up on the (TV) screen and just say, 'Just send them to jail,'" McCormick says. "I think incarceration, in general, is a very, very small Band-Aid on a very big and slow-healing wound in America."
Sharing a laugh: Dr. Carmen Heider (second from right) visits with her Inside students (from left to right) Jessica Wyman, Kristine Frankiewicz and Brenda Mick.
Inside student Brenda Mick said the course gave her a sense of self-worth. "The biggest thing I got out of this class was to know that just because I'm here doesn't make me a bad person, that I am still a good person," she says. "(The class) gave me the motivation and the strength to know that when I get out that I can do better and lead a fulfilling life."
Fellow Inside student Jessica Wyman echos Mick's sentiments. "Society automatically thinks that criminals are bad, that we don't want to do better," she says. "This class really showed people that we're not that different from the people on the outside. We just made poor choices."
Wyman, who aspires to be an electrician, says she'll leave Taycheedah with college credits. "This is the best thing that I've ever done," she says. "My dad is, like, all happy."
She laughs. "He's never happy, so that's good."