Inside-Out brings classroom discussion to state prison

Founding Director of the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College (TUPIT), Hilary Binda, and Tufts students from the the weekly class Inside-Out course, are pictured. (Courtesy Photo Hilary Binda)

As part of the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College (TUPIT), Founding Director Hilary Binda leaves campus early in the morning every Wednesday along with 10 students from the Tufts campus to join their additional 10 classmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution — Shirley, a medium-security state prison. She teaches the course “Mass Incarceration & Literature of Confinement.” Every Wednesday, the students meet in the computer lab within Shirley’s educational building. The weekly class, part of a three-year pilot, is an Inside-Out course, meaning half of the students are Tufts students and half are prisoners.

In a class of 20, nine of the 10 “outside” students (Tufts students) are female, while all 10 of the “inside” or incarcerated students are men, ranging from young adults to senior citizens. All of the inside students have a GED or high school diploma, and some have collegiate experience.

Unfortunately, due to the strict rules of the correctional institution, the Daily could not interview any inside students.

While Binda acknowledged that the course is an attempt to bridge the gap between the Tufts and prison communities, she was adamant in saying that it is not a charity project.

“This bridging is being done with the knowledge that we at Tufts have as much to learn, if not more, from the inside students as they do from us,” Binda said. “It is not a tutoring program.”

Senior Maude Plucker, a student in Binda’s class and a tutor for the Petey Greene Program, which aids in the education process for students on the inside, agreed with Binda’s sentiment.

“One of the greatest struggles of Petey Greene is the hierarchy between the tutor and the tutee, and [the Inside-Out course] really breaks that boundary,” Plucker said.

That emphasis on equality is a cornerstone of the class. According to Plucker, for the first class at Shirley, Binda organized the students’ chairs in a circle and had the inside and outside students alternating seats.

“There is this equalizing element to education,” Primary Collaborator for Educational Programming at Tufts Jill Weinberg said. “The [inside and outside] students are reading the exact same materials and having the exact same discussions.”

Weinberg went on to mention that a common narrative among the prisoners is that for that two-hour class period every Wednesday, they do not feel like they are in prison anymore.

One of the most surprising aspects of the course for outside student Sophie Pearlman is just how honest the inside students were from the beginning.

“I thought it would take time for the inside students to be comfortable with us and joke with us, but it happened almost immediately the very first day,” Pearlman, a senior, said. “The classroom, as a space, facilitates this honest conversation where you do feel comfortable sharing.”

For the class, Binda assigns various forms of text surrounding mass incarceration: poems, textbook chapters, narratives and plays. The course is different from other educational programs at Shirley and other correctional facilities in that it is more of a liberal arts course, according to Pearlman

“Other educational programs at this prison are very pre-professional, and students have expressed excitement at the fact that this is more of a critical thinking class than a hard skills class,” she said.

From the first class, both Plucker and Pearlman noticed the notes the inside students would take on the texts and how eager they were to discuss their thoughts.

“There was so much enthusiasm and energy from the inside students,” Plucker said. “It was definitely a rude awakening for me.”

Pearlman felt similarly after seeing the inside students’ contributions to the class and comparing them to those of the outside students.

“They are giving their everything to this class, and we might be taking four other credits, but it still deserves our time and energy as well,” Pearlman said.

They also talked about how, aside from the obvious differences between the inside and outside students, there was also a vast array of different backgrounds and perspectives in the class. 

“We can identify with each other in different ways,” Plucker said. “And the literature enables us to realize these commonalities.”

Plucker and Pearlman found it interesting to hear about these different perspectives — not only from the inside students but also from the other outside students, as most of them do not know each other very well.

According to Binda, because of a $50,000 Tufts Collaborates grant, as well as a sizable contribution from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, all of the course fees are completely covered by TUPIT for inside students. The Tisch Library has also contributed books to the prison based on requests made by inside students.

“That is something the inside students are really excited about,” Binda said.

Pearlman added that full-time outside students are not billed for either transportation or notebooks.

Senior Amanda Borquaye, the student primary collaborator for educational programming, stressed how meaningful the Inside-Out course can be for the inside students.

“It is important to realize that we are all people who want to live a dignified experience,” Borquaye said. “The people we work with [through Petey Greene] and the inside students have academic goals and life aspirations just like everyone else.”

She emphasized the stigma of incarcerated people and how their lives are often sensationalized and marginalized, even though they have more in common with a typical college student than one might think.

“There is not much that separates us other than social barriers, as a lot of times you find out that incarcerated people just weren’t valued by their communities,” Borquaye said.

Both Binda and Weinberg stressed that education is highly correlated with lowering recidivism. According to a RAND Corporation study, while between 43.3 percent and 51.8 percent of former prisoners were reincarcerated within three years of release, those who participated in correctional education programs lowered their chances of recidivism by 43 percent.

“Education is a very valuable way for the prisoners to better themselves,” Weinberg said. “There is this transformative aspect of education that is very hard to quantify.”

According to Binda, the stats around the correlation of recidivism and education make the work of TUPIT that much more significant.

“The numbers are in, and it’s up to us to respond, especially at an elite institution like Tufts,” Binda said.

In addition to Binda’s course, TUPIT is bringing in faculty from a wide range of disciplines to talk at the prison.

“We are really trying to create a rich interdisciplinary curriculum that you don’t see at other prison programs across the country,” Weinberg, who will teaching a one-time lecture on criminology in the spring, said.

In the fall of 2018, there will be two courses taught to just inside students as well as Binda’s Inside-Out course.

Overall, Binda has been very impressed with both the inside and outside students in her course.

“We are lucky to be bringing inside students who have thought and read a lot about structural inequality, race and economics already,” Binda said. “[The Tufts students] are approaching this experience with such deep reflectiveness and such a sharp critical analysis of the complicated barriers we are all put in direct contact with when we enter a prison.”


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