Program unites students with inmates

By Meghan Smith
April 24, 2008

With only a badge and an ID in hand, the gate slams shut and the key turns in the lock behind the students as they enter their classroom in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

This is the experience that 15 Cabrini students have had once a week during the spring semester as part of the Inside-Out Program. The Seminar 300 class Crime and Justice meets once a week with 15 inmates from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

“I really wanted to do something to get rid of the negative connotations,” Dr. Jeff Gingerich, associate professor of sociology, said. “It’s a different way of teaching for me, a different way of service,” Gingerich said.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program: Exploring Issues of Crime and Justice Behind the Walls is a program that was established 1997 with the support of the Philadelphia Prison System and Temple University by Lori Pompa, professor of criminal justice at Temple University, and has been a part of Cabrini’s curriculum for two years.

For the last 10 years, the Inside-Outside Program has created an active partnership between institutions of higher learning and correctional facilities throughout the nation. It has opened up countless opportunities for social change through conversation between those inside and outside the system and to transform our approaches to issues of crime and justice.

“They [the inside students] want us to know they aren’t bad people. They just made a mistake,” junior psychology major Jessica Zawrotny said. “We see them as individual people, not just as inmates.”

This relationship is the result of the powerful exchange that happens between the inside and outside students. “It’s interesting to see how similar many of their views are. You tend to come in thinking differently and then learn that some [of the inside students] are conservative, some radical,” Gingerich said.

According to Gingerich, both groups of students are nervous at the beginning. The inside students are concerned about being observed and the outside students don’t know what to expect. The initial feeling of discomfort quickly disappeared. “I have to shut them up after 30 minutes and they get mad,” Gingerich said.

To date, more than a combined 3,500 inside and outside students have participated in the program. The effect of the course was evident from the start, as one of the first outside students from Temple University said, “I didn’t expect to learn so much. I didn’t expect to grow and change as a result of the process. As I reflect on the power of this course, I am awestruck and humbled.”

“The class is really intense and all stereotypes are depleted,” Zawrotny said of her experience. “We’ve reached a level of friendship with the inside students and look forward to going [to the prison] each week. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

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Meghan Smith

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