Higher education and corrections are among the most powerful institutions in the world today. Yet, both have limitations in their ability to foster just and humane societies. Individuals in both systems can often feel alienated, objectified, and pessimistic about the possibility of social change.
In higher education, there has long been a focus on individual achievement and a growing emphasis on professional development, wherein the primary goal is to help a student secure employment after graduation. When the focus of an education is on individual and professional achievement only, students can find themselves ill-equipped to become participants in democratic society. Furthermore, students graduating from college are often unprepared to think critically about social systems in which they are embedded, and they lack the skills to engage with people across social and cultural differences.
In many parts of the world, prison populations are growing at a pace faster than the general population. There are an astounding 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States alone, the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. The cost of punishing and containing individuals is more than purely financial, however. Democratic societies suffer from the lost talents of those who spend years of their lives behind bars and the voices of those who could contribute to civil society. Inclusion of these voices is all the more important given that persons incarcerated are disproportionately people who come from minority and economically-distressed communities.
These problems affect us all and their underlying causes are many, with systems of economic and social exclusion chief among them. We all share responsibility for the spiral of fear, alienation, violence, crime, impoverishment, and incarceration that plagues our world. It is imperative that we fundamentally re-think how we approach these issues and include all voices in the process.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program recognizes the social isolation that systems of correction and higher education can produce. Therefore, the program facilitates partnerships between these two institutions to create spaces that foster civic engagement. Inside-Out is a form of education that enables incarcerated and non-incarcerated people to encounter one another as human beings. Dialogue across social barriers is transformative and allows problems to be approached in new and different ways. The emphasis on collaborative learning invites people on both sides of prison walls to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern.
“I have found that my course, which focuses on citizenship status and its effects on creating social disadvantage, provides as much or more academic challenge for the (campus-based) students as other classes because they need to keep up with the level of intellectual seriousness and personal engagement among the incarcerated students.”