Breaking Down the Walls

"While my inside [incarcerated] classmates live in cages, I have been educated in one."

This is a shout-out to the most transformational model of teaching and learning that I have ever seen: the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Started by Lori Pompa, a faculty member in Temple University's Department of Criminal Justice, the Inside-Out model teaches students in college (the "outside" students) together with individuals in prison (the "inside" students) in academic courses that are run within prison facilities.

As the opening quote from a former outside student makes clear, such an experiential and engaged model is transformative exactly because it helps students see the relevance of academic coursework -- from English to ethics -- by linking it to the lived reality outside of our textbook covers and university gates. I read this quote while reading the pre-publication version of a forthcoming book, Turning Teaching Inside Out: A Pedagogy of Transformation, that will be part of a book series I run on community engagement in higher education.

It reminded me, yet again, that education as disruption almost demands that face-to-face encounter, what the philosopher Martin Buber called the "I-Thou" relationship. In this respect, Inside-Out almost literally "teaches itself." From the initial crashing noises of opening prison gates to the destabilizing closing moments when one group of students gets to exit while another stays behind, all of the participants within an Inside-Out course are enveloped by the very issues they are "only" studying. The word and the world, as the critical educational theorist Paulo Freire was so fond of pointing out, become joined in "praxis."

Lori writes beautifully about this in the book, as Inside-Out, "is an exchange, an engagement between and among people who live on both sides of the prison wall. It is through this exchange, realized through the crucible of dialogue, that the walls around us and within us begin to crumble."

Indeed. What Inside-Out does through its courses is make visible, both literally and figuratively, how walls constrain and how they break. What Inside-Out has done is help loosen and, yes, crumble, the preconceptions of what it means to be bound by the walls we have built to keep some people out, some people in and all of us within the boundaries of ourselves. Inside-Out quotes a former inside participant on its website, "That wall isn't there just to keep me in, but to keep you out." This is powerful stuff.

To be clear, I do not believe that Inside-Out is "the" solution to the problem of the more than two million individuals in prison or the nearly three-quarter of a million released each year. It is unrealistic to suggest that Inside-Out, even with the hundreds of instructors trained and thousands of students taught, could transform our criminal justice system, irrespective of how powerful prison education can be.

Rather, I want to suggest that Inside-Out offers a vision of how transformation occurs. This is unfortunately all too rare in a postsecondary educational system seemingly devoted to, ironically enough, breaking down the walls of our ignorance. It is thus a powerful testament that Inside-Out has created, within the very walls that bind so many of our citizens, a means to make them begin to crumble.