Prison exchange course brings IU students, incarcerated women together in the classroom

As the students entered the classroom and began preparing to give their final presentations of the semester, it was hard to tell the difference between the two groups.

The only identifier was the prison uniforms.

This semester, students at IU Bloomington and students from the Indiana Women's Prison have been participating together in a course in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The course, led by an IU faculty member, met every Friday. Thirteen "outside" students drove to the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis to join their 18 "inside" classmates for a two-hour seminar on the history of prisons.

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Students from Indiana University Bloomington and students from the Indiana Women's Prison gather for their closing ceremony, where they presented their final group projects. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Women's Prison

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is a national program that was created nearly 20 years ago as a means to make higher education more accessible across prison walls. The outside students come together with the inside students for a semester-long course held in a prison or jail to discuss social justice issues. Faculty members at universities across the country -- and a few internationally -- are trained to teach these courses in tandem with correctional facilities in their area.

Micol Seigel, an associate professor in IU's Department of American Studies and Department of History, is one of the few faculty members in the IU system trained to teach an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program course.

She has been teaching the Inside-Out courses for seven years, but this is her first time teaching at the Indiana Women's Prison. While this year's topic happens to focus on prison history, it doesn't have to be related to incarceration, she said. Instructors teach the course along a range of topics, such as writing, Shakesperean plays and more.

Transformative experiences

Seigel said the course generally challenges her outside students the most, as they have transformative and eye-opening experiences after being exposed to the "injustices of the prison system."

"We bear this weight of assumption about prisons and people in prison. We assume they are monsters," Seigel said. "Non-incarcerated students often come to see the tremendous injustices of the legal system through this course.

"Many of their inside classmates are in prison for doing the exact same things many college students do every weekend, but in over policed neighborhoods and from hyper-incarcerated communities. They see the disproportionate enforcement of the law against people of color and the criminalization of poverty. All of this challenges the 'us' versus 'them' sense."

Outside student Theresa, who comes to Bloomington from Germany, viewed her inside classmates as a source of insight who helped her understand the course in a more dynamic way.

"It was an incredible learning environment, both on a formal academic and a very personal level," Theresa said. "It was very valuable to me to be able to discuss the evolution of the U.S. carceral state with people who are directly affected by the developments and policies we learned about."

Learning about the U.S. prison system sparked her interest to learn more about the prison system in her home country, something she is going to research more when she returns.

And for the inside students, they get the experience of taking an upper-level IU course and, in this case, even earning college credit. The Indiana Women's Prison has a pre-existing college program in place, so the women are able to receive credit through Holy Cross College.

"Higher education in prison is important because it enables incarcerated people to bring their own unique expertise and insights to bear on issues of concern to all of us," said Kelsey Kauffman, co-founder of the college program at Indiana Women's Prison. "It's like asking why higher education is important for women in addition to men, or Catholics in addition to Protestants. It's not just a question of what each individual student gains, but also of what we would all lose without them."

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Micol Seigel is an associate professor in IU's Department of American Studies and Department of History and one of the few faculty members in the IU system trained to teach an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program course. Photo by Chaz Mottinger, IU Communications

Because the prison has the college program in place, five inside students in the course are earning their graduate degrees. Two outside students are in graduate school. And it's evident that all of the incarcerated students crave the intellectual engagement they get from the course, Seigel said.

"For two hours on a Friday morning, they aren't 'prisoners,'" she said.

Breaking down barriers

This physical and social barrier between her inside students and outside students is something she actively works on breaking down over the course of the semester.

"The course is unique in that it allows us to learn side by side, when we normally wouldn't have access to one another," said Natalie, an inside student.

Many of the students' final group projects centered on the theme of a social divide. Project groups are composed of both inside and outside students, and they work together over the course of the semester to put together a final research project.

One group focused on showing a different side of prisoners, a project titled "More Than a Number," which consisted of a zine showcasing the artistic talents of women in the Indianapolis prison and featuring art forms such as poetry and drawing.

Another group chose to produce a radio show, which will air on WFHB's Kite Line, that explores legal and political history, illustrated by some of the inside students' personal experiences to document the social consequences of conviction that persist post-incarceration. The women touched on stories of stigmatization and how the average member of society can change their perspective on people with criminal convictions.

"The best part of this course is that we are all able to have honest, nonjudgmental conversations and learn from one another," said Toni, an inside student. "Everyone's different scenarios and age gaps provide a different take on the same question."

Theresa said it's easy to think the class is more meaningful for the inside students than the outside students, but she said this isn't the case.

"The inside students talk about how exceptional the class is for them, just because of the nature of the class and getting to interact with people. But it's the same way for me," she said. "This course has pushed me and challenged me to think about things differently and exposed me to new people I never would have interacted with before."

For Seigel, this transformation in thinking is the reason she teaches the course. It's not an easy course to take on, due to the amount of time and effort it takes to organize, but she says it's all worth it when her students walk away wanting to make a difference in the world.

"I think that mass incarceration is the most consequential domestic disaster of our day. It licenses us to be afraid of each other and paranoid on the streets," Seigel said. "I am willing to go quite far out of my way to do anything I can as a scholar and a professor to make people understand the system better."