October 30, 2017
It’s hard to believe that The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program began with a single Temple class in a Philadelphia jail in 1997. Twenty years later, more than 30,000 students, both incarcerated and non-incarcerated, have experienced Inside-Out courses, which facilitate mutual learning and dialogue across profound social differences. More than 800 educators representing 350 schools have been trained in the Inside-Out method, many of whom have taught courses that have been hosted by over 100 correctional facilities worldwide.
To celebrate these milestones and recognize the amazing accomplishments of our dedicated educators, alumni, and other community partners, the Inside-Out Center sponsored a Twentieth Anniversary Conference and Celebration from October 19-21, 2017 in Philadelphia.
The conference opened on Thursday evening with a reception at Temple University’s Mitten Hall. Inside-Out’s Founder and Executive Director Lori Pompa and International Think Tank Coordinator Tyrone Werts offered words of welcome. Temple University’s president Richard M. Englert gave a moving speech praising the accomplishments of Inside-Out and celebrating the fact that a program started at Temple has sparked an educational movement with a global impact. The reception was attended by nearly 200 people who enjoyed refreshments and music by Jean Therapy, a group led by Jean Lenke, who worked with the program for 12 years.
Day Two of the conference took place at Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia. Conference organizer Nina Johnson scheduled a series of panels and workshops on a wide range of topics. Among the session titles were “Talking About Victimization,” “An Epistemology of Incarceration,” “Teaching Inside-Out with a Transitory Jail Population,” “Seeing Ourselves in Each Other,” and “Crossing the Jim Crow Color Line.” See the full itinerary here.
Friday concluded with a plenary session featuring James Forman, Jr. of Yale Law School and Marie Gottschalk from the University of Pennsylvania. The conversation was mediated by Stephanie Keene, who posed questions about the current state of the criminal justice system in the United States. Gottschalk outlined some of the grim statistics, including the fact that the U.S. has more individuals serving life sentences than the entire prison population of Japan. “These policies are inhumane,” said Gottshalk. “We need to start treating incarcerated people as citizens.” Forman added that reform efforts must seek to change the public narrative about mass incarceration. “We must highlight not only the statistics, but the personal stories of those who are affected by these punitive policies.”
The third and final day of the conference took place behind the walls of Graterford Prison (now SCI Phoenix). The Graterford Think Tank (now Phoenix Think Tank), which has been an anchor for the program since 2002, planned and carried out a full schedule for the more than 250 people who gathered in the prison auditorium. “This room is sacred space,” declared Prison Superintendent Cynthia Link, who welcomed the crowd to her facility. “So many lives have been transformed in this place.”
Following remarks by Lori Pompa and Tyrone Werts was a discussion panel comprised entirely of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals including Shaka Senghor, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Susan Burton, and three persons incarcerated at Graterford: Marco Maldonado, Terrell Carter, and Felix Rosado. The theme of the panel was “Bridging the Gap.”
After preparing and serving a delicious lunch, think tank members facilitated a workshop aimed at challenging participants to think critically about root causes of social problems. Coordinating the movement of hundreds of people and chairs in dozens of circles and encouraging thoughtful conversation in an acoustically challenging environment was no easy feat, but the veteran Graterford Think Tank members pulled it off without a hitch.
Following the workshop was a recognition ceremony for those who have played a special role in Inside-Out’s growth over the years. Award recipients included: Kay Harris, who has been involved in virtually every aspect of Inside-Out since its inception; Cynthia Link and the Graterford staff, who have been exceptionally supportive of Inside-Out programming over the years; Melissa Crabbe, who developed the training materials and training curriculum, which made the program’s replication possible; Paul Perry, whose idea inspired the birth of the Inside-Out program. After Kate King received a recognition for her commitment and generosity to Inside-Out, she had the opportunity to present an award to Tyrone Werts on behalf of her mother, Lucille Patlaf Ash. Before she died, Kate’s mother had long recognized the inspirational impact Tyrone and the Inside-Out experience had on her daughter’s life. As a result, the family made a generous donation to the Inside-Out Center a few years ago.
The day at Graterford ended with a meditation by poet Kempis “Ghani” Songster. Ghani spoke of Parker Palmer’s notion of the “tragic gap.” That gap, said Ghani, “is the space between the better world we can imagine and the world in which we reside.” “The challenge,” said Ghani, “is to live by faith. You may never see the success you want, but you’ve got to be faithful to the cause of justice.”
Ghani’s message was one of the many things from the conference that inspired Kristi Polizzano, Inside-Out staff member and “outside” member of the Graterford Think Tank. “It’s easy to feel cynical about the state of the criminal justice system, but this conference has re-energized me. It was incredible to look around the auditorium and see the numerous discussion circles in which people shared both their hopes and their frustrations.” John Pace, who was recently released from Graterford Prison after serving 31 years, had bittersweet feeling on his return to Graterford that day. “It was wonderful to be back and see the friends I had known for decades, but I had a deep sadness knowing that they could not leave with me at the end of the day.”
Although there is much work yet to be done, the day at Graterford, just like Inside-Out classes have done over the past 20 years, gave both inside and outside participants a glimpse of a more humane and just world. Although we live in that tragic gap, we hope you will join us in supporting Inside-Out’s ability to provide experiences of transformative education for the next 20 years and beyond.
– David M. Krueger