Prison Break: Class with Inmates

Inside-Out Prison Exchange ProgramMaggie Miller (CSH ’13) discussed the week’s reading with her classmates at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., as part of the first cohort of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a service-learning experience that pairs an equal number of college students with male inmates for classes on restorative justice (repairing harm as opposed to merely punishing offenders). Philosophy Instructor Dominica Kimberley Moe had assigned book one of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” and Miller, like many of her peers—both DePaul students and student inmates alike—struggled through the assignment, pausing every few minutes to take a break from the density of the prose. One tenacious Latino inmate even translated the text into Spanish using a dictionary, hoping to better understand it. “This was the most rigorous class I’ve taken because the guys set the bar so high,” Miller asserts. “I learned a lot more because of it.”

For 10 weeks, DePaul students attended classes at the prison, completed reading assignments, participated in class discussions and wrote reflective papers. “One group does not teach the other; rather, all students learn with each other,” says Moe. “Everyone involved is affected by the shared experience itself, and a connection develops that is grounded in collaboration and equality.” Moe has taught nine courses at Stateville since launching the program at DePaul in 2011.

“We all have strong views on those who are incarcerated, especially in a maximum-security prison,” explains Moe. “In the media, we’re bombarded with all kinds of horrific images of heinous crimes. What the students discover inside the prison are real people who have a lot in common with them. It’s transformative.”

Moe holds think tanks every Thursday with former participants—both inside and out—to brainstorm ways to improve and expand offerings. The Inside-Out think tanks have produced two additional philosophy courses (Masculinity, Justice and Law and Law and the Political System), newsletters, a correspondence course and a letter-writing campaign titled “Why My Life Matters,” which was shown at Cortelyou Commons during the April 2015 visit of Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., (DHL ’00).

“I wanted [my class] to have this feeling of hope, not hopelessness,” says John Zeigler, director of the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships at the Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning and faculty member who developed and taught the new masculinity course in spring 2015. “What do you look at in terms of changing not only your narrative, but also the narrative outside of the walls? How does your story translate in a way that can help to influence others? How do you begin to think about deconstructing systems that allow for these things to happen?”

Miller took those questions to heart. She was inspired by her classroom and think tank experiences in the Inside-Out program to enroll at the DePaul College of Law. “To hear what my inside classmates think it means to be somebody’s advocate within the legal system has been very valuable to me,” she says. “It helps keep me grounded. There’s a lot of good society could be doing that we’re choosing not to do, and a law degree gives me a platform to be able to do that. I would love to get to a point in my legal career where I can say [to my fellow legal advocates], ‘I’ve read the things you’ve read. I’ve studied the things you’ve studied. I know the things you know, but what we’re doing is wrong, and we need to fix it.'”

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