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, 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 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 said, adding that such short vists 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 said. 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.”
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