What We Learned about Education in the Nation’s 5th Largest Prison

Three weeks ago, I returned from a week long 60+ hour training at the Inside Out National Training Institute, just outside Philadelphia. As described by Inside-Out, the “Program is a creative link between two of the largest and most highly-funded institutional and social structures in our country: academia and prisons. These institutions traditionally have very different functions and goals in terms of education, control, and political influence, and they are, in general, alternately oriented towards the most advantaged and disadvantaged social strata in our society.” The program was formalized in 1997, and since then, has used its transformational pedagogy to bring thousands of students from the inside and outside together to learn about a range of subjects from Criminal Justice to Philosophy. This fall I will be teaching Creating Farm and Food Cooperatives in the Franklin County House of Corrections (FCHC) through a partnership between FCHC and Greenfield Community College (GCC), where TESA has taught for the last two years. Given TESA’s and GCC’s plan to teach the Cooperative class to a blended class in the prison, with both inside and outside students, the Inside- Out training was a necessity for us.

TESA’s plans to bring cooperative education to incarcerated students and outside students will be Part II of this blog post, and as the subject of Part I of this blog post, I want to talk about the training, and the deep impact it had on me as both an educator and a person.

Put simply, the training was inspiring and transformational. In addition to myself, there were 14 other educators, from community based organizations to professors in higher-ed. Our homebase for the week was a retreat center just outside Philadelphia, called Pendle Hill. We spent 4 of the 7 days of training at Pendle Hill, and the other 3 days at Graterford Maximum Security Prison, the 5th largest prison in the US, with just over 5,000 people incarcerated. In Graterford, our training was designed and lead by the Inside-Out Think Tank, which is comprised of 15 men incarcerated at Graterford prison.

As a practitioner and firm believer in the power of democratic and participatory education, this training was an exemplar on how and why democratic and participatory education is so powerful.

At Graterford Prison, we went into the monstrosity that mass incarceration embodies. Instead of finding only despair, oppression, and exploitation, I found inspiration, humanity, hope, passion, and transcendence.

All but one of the 15 men were in prison for life, and a number of the men were “juvenile lifers” who had been convicted to life sentences before they were 18. Pennsylvania has extremely inhumane incarceration laws, including “death by life” as the guys called it. In other words, there is no parole of life sentences in PA, and the allowance of juvenile life sentences. Put those two together, and you have men who have been in jail for life since they were 15 without any hope of parole. As an outsider, this would seem to be the ultimate recipe for despair, yet, in spite of these conditions, the drive and purpose of the Think Tank men was infectious.

As a practitioner and firm believer in the power of democratic and participatory education, this training was an exemplar on how and why democratic and participatory education is so powerful. During the week long training, and especially during our three days at Graterford, we created a shared space that turned conceptions, barriers, anxieties, and pre-conceived notions inside-out. Among the many reasons we were able to accomplish this goal was the way in which the training was able to balance the needs of individuals and the group. We worked hard to create a “safe enough” space, that allowed for people to make mistakes, and created an environment where we could learn from our mistakes in a meaningful and non-punitive fashion. It may sounds simple, but little things like always sitting in a circle facing each other, seats always alternating inside, outside, and inside students, and group ground-rules, goals, and values defined by participants makes a world of difference. Furthermore, we spent a lot of time on “non-content activities,” which in reality were the catalysts to breaking down our barriers. For example, ice-breaker activities that had students discussing questions like “when is a time you have witnessed discrimination,” or “what is a prejudice that you have held that you have overcome?” These types of activities allowed for some of the most intimate and frank conversations I have had period, let alone with people I only met within the week. Seemingly divisive or difficult conversations actually served to show us our similarities, not the instances or factors of life which have worked to separate us.

Regarding the more content-focused activities of the training, the outside students formed groups of three with the goal of developing a 15-week Inside Out Class, a reading list, syllabus, and 30-minute activity which all of the participants, Inside and Outside would go through together on the final day. After the groups were formed and topics decided, we presented our topics and work to the the Think Tank members, at which point, the Think Tank members each joined a curriculum group they were interested in being a part of. There were three Think Tank members per group, and they served as each group’s coaching team, helping them to develop curriculum, activities, and language that would be appropriate for an Inside-Out setting.

…as a group, despite the prison walls around us, we were able to create a shared environment of honesty and purpose.

My group’s course was titled Criminalization of Children, and our coaching team, some of whom were juvenile lifers, was instrumental in helping us to shape both the content and techniques. The activity works to carry participants through the experiences of five children in our incarceration system. In small groups, participants are exposed to their stories, and asked to create what they feel is an appropriate response to each specific scenario. Then, as a whole group, the class investigates the cases, discusses the proposed outcomes, and makes connections to the school to prison pipeline and the militarization of our childrens’ lives. I hope you find the curriculum helpful, as it is a great way to discuss a number of different issues, from structural racism to federal funding and the prison industrial complex.

The Think Tank guys would be the first people to say how much the Inside Out Program changed their course in life, how it exposed them to not just college level courses, but college students, and how everyone was able to explore and share their humanity with each other. That is really what it came down to—a group of people from different walks of life, different experiences, and vastly different day to day experiences, coming together to learn from each other and searching for a shared understanding of humanity, a chance to feel acceptance, trust, and friendship. I have tried hard to encapsulate the experience in a couple of pages, yet it remains enigmatic. I think part of what is so hard to articulate, and what so defined the experience and the Inside-Out model, is that as a group, despite the prison walls around us, we were able to create a shared environment of honesty and purpose – a place where for a couple of hours we could turn the prison inside-out.

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