Prison, Society and You: Experiential Learning ‘At its Best’

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Drexel students will not be able to simply click and register for the Criminal Justice 380 course this spring term. Candidates will instead be interviewed and hand-picked by sociology professor Cyndi Rickards, who already has a syllabus ready and waiting detailing what she hopes will be a life-changing and profound learning experience for those enrolled in the course.

The course, “Prison, Society and You,” will be built around the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a partnership between higher education institutions and correctional systems designed to address issues of crime, justice, freedom, inequality and other topics of social concern. According to Lori Pompa, Temple University professor and founder of the program, Inside-Out was based on the simple hypothesis that prisoners and college students might mutually benefit from studying and discussing these issues as peers.

Every Thursday during spring term, 15 Drexel students, or “outside” students, will visit Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in Philadelphia, where they’ll meet with 15 men incarcerated there—“inside” students— in a peer-to-peer open dialogue about all aspects of social justice. It’s the kind of learning opportunity that’s a perfect fit for Drexel, Rickards says.

“I am so excited to bring this program to Drexel—it really fits the University,” she says. “This is experiential learning at its absolute best.”

“By the end of each semester, students have this spark growing inside of them and they really want to make change in the world,” Pompa says.

Inside-Out has parameters in place to ensure the safety and confidentiality of the group, including both students and faculty. One of those parameters is that there is no contact between inside and outside students once the course has ended.

“We make it clear in the beginning that the group is going to bond,” Pompa says. “But it’s non-negotiable that the group will part at the end. I tell people, ‘If that’s not something you can handle, you better opt out.’ I’ve never had anybody opt out.”

Rickards will host several information sessions about the course this month. Instructors interested in teaching the course must undergo training through the program.

Inside-Out does not apply only to criminal justice courses; Pompa says that other universities participating in the program have prison-based courses that address many and varied disciplines. That’s Rickards’ vision for the future of the program at Drexel, as well.

“I’m hoping we can adopt this program across the University,” she says.

Since the program’s founding in 1997, it’s been utilized in 37 states and Canada, and will start in Ireland and Australia in the next couple of years, Pompa says.

The first information session, on January 19, will be held for Drexel faculty interested in teaching the course. Rickards will be joined by Pompa, as well as Tyrone Werts, who serves as an ambassador for the program. In May 2011, Werts was released from prison through a pardon granted by former Gov. Ed Rendell after serving 37 years of a life sentence. During his time in prison, and now outside, Werts has been deeply involved in Inside-Out.

“Tyrone was instrumental in getting this program started,” Pompa says.

“He’s just a very special person and has an amazing story,” Rickards adds.

He’ll tell that story on January 19.

The session for faculty will take place on Thursday, January 19 from 3 to 5 pm in the Liberty View Room on the 6th floor of MacAlister Hall.

Three separate information sessions will be offered for students in the Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology (PSA) building at 33rd and Powelton Streets, room 205:

  • Monday, January 23 at 5 pm
  • Tuesday, January 24 at 1 pm
  • Thursday, January 26 at 4 pm

To learn more about the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, click here.