Prison exchange program lets students, prisoners learn as peers

Lori Pompa, an instructor in the criminal justice department at Temple University, has always taken her students on field trips to meet some of the men and women incarcerated in prisons.

Starting in 1997, she began facilitating these encounters as more than one-time meetings. Pompa organized classes in which “inside” students (those currently incarcerated) and an equal number of “outside” students (undergraduates at a nearby college) participated as equals over an entire semester.

“Our outside students aren’t there to study the inside students,” Pompa says. “They’re there to learn. All participants are in class together, as peers.” These peer relationships lead to a better understanding of an array of social issues.

Fifteen years after that first class, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program has spread way beyond its Philadelphia birthplace. Programs have sprung up across the country and in Canada, and 324 people have been trained to teach Inside-Out classes. These classes are in subjects that include everything from math to theater and from nursing to history. In addition, several law schools are now participating.

Like the subject matter, the participants reflect a variety of backgrounds. Participating schools include “everything from community colleges to small liberal arts schools to major regional universities,” Pompa says. What the students have in common is a willingness to shed their preconceptions and look at issues in new ways.

Participating area colleges

Arcadia University

Bryn Mawr College

Cabrini College

Drexel University

Haverford College

Neumann College

Philadelphia Community College

St. Joseph’s University

Swarthmore College

Temple University

University of Pennsylvania

University of the Sciences

Villanova Law School

West Chester State University

Widener University

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