Inside-out graphic header image
Inside-out graphic header image

Podcast Episode 10

Interview with Tiffany Simmons (Washington DC)

June 11, 2020

Subscribe and listen via:
iTunesGoogle PlayStitcheriHeart RadioRSS

The tenth episode of the Inside-Out Podcast features Professor Tiffany Simmons, who serves as a Lecturer and Adjunct Professor at both Howard University and American University. Her areas of study include criminology, criminal justice and law. Ms. Simmons also serves as the Inside-Out Program Coordinator for American University. Currently, she is the Special Assistant/Chief of Staff to the Deputy Director of College and Career Readiness, Professional Development, and Special Projects for the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. In this role, Professor Simmons has administrative oversight of the education, training and professional development of the inmates and staff. She previously worked as an educational advocate/attorney with a focus on assisting many at-risk youth with their educational needs. Professor Simmons is a graduate of Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law and she earned her B.A. in political science from Johnson C. Smith University.

The Inside-Out podcast is hosted by Dave Krueger from The Inside-Out Center, the international headquarters of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts.

Episode Transcription:

David Krueger: In this episode of The Inside-Out Podcast, I speak with Professor Tiffany Simmons, who teaches as a Lecturer and Adjunct Professor at Howard University and American University. Her areas of study include criminology, criminal justice and law. She also serves as Special Assistant to Deputy Director of College & Career Readiness and Professional Development for the District of Columbia Department of Corrections in Washington DC. Professor Simmons completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute in 2016 and has taught classes combining students from American University and the DC Jail. In this interview, Professor Simmons discusses her work to increase access to education for incarcerated people and she also shares her desire to see more historically black colleges and universities involved in prison education, and specifically, Inside-Out education.

Tiffany Simmons: It is imperative. And I say this as a person who is a two-time HBCU graduate getting ready to earn my third certification from the Howard University School of Business. And I also speak as a person who had a brother who was incarcerated. The majority of the people in prison, in jail and carceral spaces in the U.S. are African-American. It's important for the HBCUs to get involved in the conversation in prison education, one to act as role models, to let people know again that they are beyond the circumstances, and two, to create pipelines and gateways to education, because HBCUs are traditionally known for creating opportunities for those who normally or traditionally would not have it. So living up to the legacy that is instilled in us as HBCU students, and HBCU faculty members, I feel that responsibility to go and give back to those people because the people who are inside the facility are members of our community. Even if their address is different, they are still members of our community. And because of that, we have a responsibility to care for them and to educate them.

David Krueger: The interview with Tiffany Simmons will continue after this word from Tyrone Werts.

Tyrone Werts: The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program facilitates dialogue and education across social barriers. Inside-Out courses bring campus-based college students and incarcerated students together in jails and prisons for semester-long learning. These courses ignite enthusiasm for learning, help students find their voice, and challenge students to consider what good citizenship requires. Since Temple University professor Lori Pompa taught the first class in 1997, Inside-Out has grown into an international network of more than 1,000 trained instructors from across the US and several countries. Prisons and universities have partnered to create opportunities for more than 40,000 inside and outside students to move beyond the walls that separate them. We are more than a program...we are changing the world.

(03:23) David Krueger: Tiffany Simmons, welcome to the Inside-Out podcast.

Professor Tiffany Simmons: Thank you so much for having me.

(03:28) DK: So why don't we begin by just having you share a little bit about your background and how you got into the type of work that you're doing now?

TS: Well, initially, I went to law school in Texas at the University of Houston, Texas, After graduating I got a job in higher education, working in our office of admissions and also working with our FEMA students. So I did diversity services in addition to admissions and financial aid. I transitioned from there into working for a big law firm, Hunt & Williams, decided the law firm life wasn’t for me. I moved to D.C. and started work as an education advocate and juvenile justice attorney here in a local area. I did that for a number of years, working with a lot of children in the foster care system and also the criminal justice system and then transitioned into teaching. I initially started teaching at Howard University in 2009, and then American University 2013. And through my work as an educator and coming in and teaching classes inside the facility here, I was able to transition to my current role, which is the Chief of Staff for Amy Lopez, who was the Deputy Director of College and Career Readiness and Professional Development for the D.C. Department of Corrections.

(04:51) DK: Somewhere along this journey, you enrolled in the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute. Why did you take the training and how did you initially get connected to Inside-Out?

TS: Around 2013. One of the professors here came to start working at Howard. I am listed as a, I’m a part-time faculty member, I’m a lecturer, a professor at Howard. And she mentioned a program when she found out about my background in juvenile justice and child advocacy. She felt like it would be a perfect alignment with my area of research and just my experience, period. So I finally went in the winter in January 2016. I was trained alongside Lori and a bunch of wonderful people in my cohort and there started my journey.

(05:44) DK: You've been able to teach the class a couple of times. Could you tell us about that experience of teaching Inside-Out for the first time?

TS: Yeah. So my first time teaching inside out, I actually had the opportunity to teach it for both Howard and American at the exact same time. One class at American was Critical Issues in Justice and the other class at Howard was Police, Law and Society, which is kind of focused on community relations. Both classes were very interesting in the sense of, we were talking about critical issues of justice and how violence impacts society. The conversation was quite lively with my students from American University. That class, that particular cohort was global, so I had 14 students and out of 14 students, five of them were from around the world. So we had Ireland, Austria, we had Czech Republic, Russia and someone from Central America. So the conversation was deeper than I anticipated because we had students sharing their global perspectives. And of course, the Police and Law Society class was heated at times because police and community relations and the tension in our country, even now, you know, is a hot topic. So it was interesting and it allowed me the opportunity to kind of have two divergent points of view because the populations of my classes were so different, but still very quite engaging. I learned a lot about myself as well. I felt like this balancing the two programs at the same time was interesting, but challenging myself as a teacher. First time teaching in a carceral space, in trying to adapt how I learned and how I learned the pedagogy to really making sure it benefited all of the students I had in the classroom.

(07:36) DK: So the D.C. jail, as I understand, is a bit different from a lot of other correctional facilities. It's not necessarily like a county jail, it's technically a federal facility, right? Could you tell us a little bit about what it was like to teach in that facility and about the inside students that you’ve worked with?

TS: Absolutely. So the D.C. jail, as you stated, is a very unique, I guess, carceral space. We have local detainees who are with us for up to two years, one month. And then we also have persons who are federal. So they're either waiting to be adjudicated, meaning they’re waiting to go to court or they are coming back to us to finish their sentence out. There's also persons who are coming back because they're asking or appealing their sentence, so they're back on a writ trying to figure this out and if it can be reduced or they'll be sent back up to the federal. And in this particular space, we have the central detention facility, which most folks would identify with as just a traditional jail where you have your cell blocks, not much programming space on it. And then we also have our space for the central treatment facility, which is where we house our female, our women inmates, as well as the male inmates who are on a lower security and who are also participating in a specialized program such as rehabilitation and work readiness. I had my American Inside-Out course at the CTF, literally teaching inside of a cell block. And then in my American, my Howard University class, excuse me, was actually inside the law library, the actual library space that is on the CTF side. The Central Chamber Facility is really great, it has actual classrooms that you would see in any local high school or university and a law library and a library system is actually run by the D.C. Public Library. So one set of students in a way, got a traditional setting, if you will, and the other ones were learning literally where the gentlemen in our class were house and where they lived every day. So teaching in that space, for me, was very interesting, I was like, this is really weird, because, again, you have a literal library where librarians are checking out books and then the housing things. I will say the students who were being taught in the housing space, the unit. Initially there was some trepidation because they knew what to expect. But after a while, they were like, you know, they even started waving and getting to know the other guys on the unit that weren't even involved in our class. And towards the end, there was a strong sense of community, the students actually wanted more time together. And were asking if we could continue the session into the spring semester. But obviously we couldn't do that because, you know, the semester was ending.

(10:36) DK: If I were to ask you if there were any particular students either inside or outside students, that seemed to be particularly memorable to you or individuals that really seemed to be impacted by your classes, who would be the first people that would come to your mind?

TS: I have a student, her name is Annie Rainey. Annie graduated from the university spring 2018... 2019, excuse me. And she first had me in the fall of 2018 for Violence and Justice class and then decided to enroll in the Inside-Out class. My particular Inside-Out class is focused on criminal procedure and sometimes the conflict that is present when you're viewing it through the lens of constitutional due process. Annie walked in there and just soaked it all in and she was very much impacted by the conversations and projects. I had them each identify a critical link or defect in the chain of criminal procedure and where it fell. And she chose juvenile, juveniles, persons who were juveniles who were sentenced and charged as an adult. And the interesting thing is, upon leaving the class, she says, “Professor Simmons, I'm about to take this information and do something with it. I'm going to make a difference.” She is now the re-entry coordinator for the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Facility. And even to this day, she and I keep in contact that she's actually creating a special internship program for a couple of my students that are from America and Howard. But she's an example of students who come in the door, green, not really knowing about this aspect. And she's interned obviously at places, but taking information, dissecting the experiences of her classmates and really taking it to heart and using it to really try to reform the criminal justice system. That's the one student right now that kind of just definitely sticks out to me in terms of all that.

One of my inside students, his name is Diante and he was in the class. He was 21 years old. And he was kind of just looking at me like, “I can't do this Mrs. Simmons, I can't do this. You know, I barely, I don't really have a G.E.D.” You know, one of the things I will say? I will say, because of the level at which the information is presented, and the level and the complexity of it, in a way, we do kind of ask for students on the inside to have at least some of their eighth grade education level so that we can kind of, you know, continue the process, the whole thing. The first couple of sessions, he was just like “Whatever”, not engaged. Towards the end, he was telling us what an expert witness was. He was able to utilize the concepts and even apply them to his own case, not seeing like “OK”, he was able to understand it from a different perspective, “So this was the expert witness and this is why they did that.” The reason he sticks out to me is because, while he was in the custody and care of the CBOC, see, he earned a GED and he was able to just… he matured so much, even in the conversation in the classroom. And he is free now. They dropped his case. And he’ll walk around and he'll say, coming to jail, although he, you know, he never would want to do it, it changed his life for the better. So when you have students exiting your class who never thought they would be capable of handling a college or graduate level course, and now they get out and you're like, “I'm going to school”, “I'm enrolling in college”, “I got my GED”. That's when you know that you made a difference.

(14:28) DK: When you think about these individual stories of students in your class that you work with, in what ways do you think the Inside-Out model or this kind of teaching, or these kinds of experiences… What kind of a social impact do you see them having around the world?

TS: For me as a person, that's law related. I'll speak first from that perspective. Teaching criminology, law, criminal justice related courses, students are able to go beyond the pages of the textbook. They really experience and put themselves in a situation where, OK, yes, this person can share their experiences with you, but it also humanizes. Inside-Out does a great job of humanizing, for people, whether you're teaching law or you're teaching someone music. Just because a person happens to be located in a different position than you and the label, because you might be labeled as a student of an Ivy League university and they might bear the label of an inmate or whatever. In that space we’re both students, in that space we’re equal. So Inside-Out on a global level is transformative education and it is best because not only is it experiential learning, it's people teaching people how to have an appreciation of various perspectives, its teaching intercultural communication skills, its teaching respect. And it's bringing about a strong sense of humanity and my opinion. And it's empowering. Again, for the students who in most cases in our programming across the world, the inside students are not earning college credit, but it's letting them know that, “Hey, you can do college level work. You can do graduate level work. You can do law school level work. You are capable of more than what your circumstances are at this moment.” And for me, that's the biggest impact, it’s not just transformative in the sense of, you know, “Hey, we're bringing this program, it's transforming people's lives literally every day.

(16:40) DK: How important would you say that it is for educators from historically black colleges and universities to get involved in prison education or Inside-Out specifically?

TS: It is imperative. And I say this as a person who is a two-time HBCU graduate getting ready to earn my third certification from the Howard University School of Business. And I also speak as a person who had a brother who was incarcerated. The narrative right now being told in the United States is that the majority of the people in prison, in jail and carceral spaces are African-American. And why it's important for the HBCUs to get involved in the conversation in prison education, one to act as role models, to let people know again that they are beyond the circumstances, and two, to create pipelines and gateways to education, because HBCUs are traditionally known for creating opportunities for those who normally or traditionally would not have it. So living up to the legacy that is instilled in us as HBCU students, and HBCU faculty members, I feel that responsibility to go and give back to those people because the people who are inside the facility are members of our community. Even if their address is different, they are still members of our community. And because of that, we have a responsibility to care for them and to educate them.

(18:16) DK: You’ve had a really interesting and diverse career path and in the last couple of years, you've been working for the D.C. Department of Corrections. Could you share some about what you do there and maybe something about your transition from being an educator to working in a carceral space full time?

TS: So my path here is indeed interesting. As you already know, fall semester 2017, I was teaching Inside-Out and when we sat down with the program administrators to debrief, to figure out what we could do better, what we would like to see. One of the things I shared with them was my, you know, my background. They know that I'm a diversity person. So being a diversity inclusion strategist, I'm thinking we need to input some type of format, at least in my class, as I said, I was gonna utilize some of the trainings I do to create a more balanced community setting and to take away any apprehension or trepidation the students may have, one of the person sitting in the room was the head of the behavioral health unit. So she contacted me after the meeting and asked “Tiffany, would you mind coming to do a training? We’re starting this unit called Young Men Emerging, its modeled after a unit in Connecticut where it's a therapeutic environment for those 18 to 24. And I remember you also being, you know, a child advocate.” And I was like, “This is right up my alley.” You know, that great spot of recidivism is right there. So I was able to develop a curriculum for training for the staff that were going to be assigned to the unit. It was a two part series. And I did it in January of 2018. At the end of January 2018, I get a call from the director's office, Director Booth, here at D.C.D.O.C. asking me to come in for a meeting. And I am very scared and I'm thinking like, “Oh my goodness, did I do something wrong? Was the training not sufficient? Lo and behold I am in his office and he's like, “I want you to come here. I want you to help me put this place out.” And I said, “What? What do you mean?” You know, again, right up my alley. He said that “I have someone who I say you would be a perfect match with. I'm going to set up a conversation for you, two.” So I'm getting ready. And he wants me to interview ‘the’ Amy Lopez. Amy Lopez was the first superintendent of education for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, appointed under the Barack Obama administration. She transitioned from the federal side to D.C.D.O.C. and was doing wonderful things here in D.C.D.O.C. And after talking to her, she's like, “You know what? I want you to come work for me.” I was like, “Are you serious?”

And she made me her chief of staff and this is the first time in the history of the D.C.D.O.C. where an educator was actually running the education and the training department. So for me, it was a perfect opportunity to marry all of my skills, my lawyering skills, my skills as an educator, my background in criminal justice, all of these things. An opportunity to really make a change from the inside out, literally. So that was January, February, April. I gave my two weeks notice. 2018. Been here ever since. And I can't tell you how powerful it's been to watch our team grow.

Our training department, our training manager is a former law enforcement person, but she was also my counterpart. She was the chief of staff for the Deputy Director of Operations in Tehran who runs the day to day operations for the jail. She's now our trainee manager and she has a PHD in education. We have a college advisor who actually has a master's degree in college advising and counseling, she's our University Administrator and Liaison. We have a principal. I mean, we have all of these wonderful things. And for me to be a part of it, I get to serve in the training specialists. So I do curriculum related to, of course, my area of expertise, we do law, I've created more classes for our cadets, our introduction correctional officers and we do a lot, we have way more cultural and inclusive trainings now. I do the same thing on the inside as well with our residents. It's just a wonderful time to be in this space. To me, the transition was easy and effortless because of the people that I'm working with. I literally come to work every day and I'm excited. I stay late at work every day because I know, even though some of my work is balancing budgets, I make sure that this line goes out correctly or this MOU is drafted correctly and we have a new university partner that is gonna be able to bring your services for our staff and our residents on the inside.

(23:21) DK: What advice would you give to those who are considering or just starting to teach Inside-Out courses? And also, do you have any advice for white educators as they go into carceral spaces that are overwhelmingly populated by persons of color?

TS: Honestly, I believe that the advice I would give them would probably be the same. In this instance, one, I would suggest first getting a tour of the facility before you start your class so that you get a feel for the space, because, as I explained earlier, for example, in our space, our jail, if you are a person that's on our central treatment side, you will have access to the classrooms, traditional setting, and, you know, we have the smart boards, it's more conducive to what people feel is a traditional learning environment. If you're going to be in a traditional jail or prison where you're teaching or in the housing unit or teaching in a space that they have to make into a learning environment, it'll help you adapt how your syllabus is going to run. It'll help dictate how the activities you do will be. And also how to have good conversation with whomever the administrator in charge of the education of programming is on site to see what resources they have to help support you. And also ask questions like, well, if you want to have this, can I bring that in? For example, if you don't have access to projectors and computers and laptops, would you mind if I bring one in? And if so, what are the requirements for that? So that's that one, understanding the environment in which you will be teaching.

The second is, don't go in thinking that you are going to save the people that you're teaching on the inside. They are people just like you. They have feelings just like you. So you're thinking that, “Oh my goodness. I'm feeling pity on you because I'm “a free person” and you're incarcerated at this time. My duty is to save you and make you make your world better.” And that's not the case. People find that quite offensive. And especially if you are in a situation where, if you are a person that looks different than the people that you are educating on the inside, or even if you do look the same, because here's where a lot of people make mistakes: There's a natural bias, and I think, judgment, whether we recognize it or not, that comes from this, just because I might be black and the person that I'm teaching is black, I'm thinking we are automatically going to identify with one. And that's not true. Or just because I'm a person that is Caucasian and the person, I mean, I'm teaching that's incarcerated might be a Latinx person, you know, I should come in and let them know that I speak Spanish, and all of this. You have to be mindful of the fact that building the trust and relationship with these students, because they are a vulnerable population requires sensitivity. And you have to find a way to connect. But it isn't always going to be because of race. And it's not always going to be because you think there's a stereotype that's gonna be the bridge between the connection piece. You go in with yourself. You go in being sincere, that's how you are able to connect, because, I think that's the case when you're teaching students on the inside or not. They want sincerity, they connect more with you when you are being genuine and not making assumptions. I think you have to put everything to the side, and especially if you are teaching people that don't look like you. You need to admit that you don't know. And you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If that makes sense. And just really kind of embracing the situation for what it is. Because fakeness and again, the superhero syndrome is what I say. And don't assume that the people that you're teaching don't have a knowledge base. A lot of people presume that everybody that's in the prison or jail population, you know, they're uneducated. And I have, you know, I've had people in my classes with master's degrees, PHDs and M.Ds last semester. So don't assume that their education level is beneath you and you have to talk down to people. That makes it. That would be, I guess, a few tips or advice that I would give to my colleagues who, whether you're teaching Inside-Out class or not, how to make things work in a carceral space.

(28:14) DK: What is something that really makes you frustrated about the work that you do? And on the flip side, what would be something that really gives you a sense of hope?

TS: That there isn't, the thing that frustrates me is that there are not enough people doing the work.

And then sometimes when the people that do it, they do it with ulterior motives. You're trying to make a name for yourself on the backs of other people and exploiting folks, that's what gets to me. When I see people coming in I talk to people, again, carceral education is a big, big thing right around the globe, around our country. And then you're focusing on one person because this person has won more notoriety than another person. For every one person that you are trying to exploit, there's like 80 other people that genuinely need your help too.

And for me, that's the thing, because right now criminal justice reform, prison reform is a hot topic, right? It's a big issue for people. Presidents, Presidential Candidates are talking about it, Senators are talking about it, City councilmen are talking about it. So people are utilizing, some people utilizing and capitalizing on opportunities for self benefit. And I don't like that. That's not, that's not what I think this work is about. You're not going to effect change if all you're trying to do is shine a spotlight on yourself. That's one.

But the thing that gives me hope are my students. When, you know, students like Annie Raynie, I had another one who took the class with me and being inside, has changed the direction in terms of what he wants to practice in our law. And then again, the students, who didn't think they were capable of doing something, but they are. Or the student who comes in, I did have a couple of those whose, I mean, that shared with me that their father was incarcerated, but being inside has given them a different perspective. It actually humanizes their dad to them, because now they see their dad as a person and not as an inmate, if that makes sense. So, for me, my students every day, without question, will give me hope.

(30:35) DK: Any parting words of wisdom?

Ms. Tiffany Simmons: Just keep doing what we're all doing. I’m going to keep, you know, keep trying to get more people trained in the pedagogy and encourage our Inside-Out cohort across the globe. Don't just stop it you know, teaching Inside-Out. Like if your university has MOUs or MOA’s with these jails and prisons, expand the programming. Inside-Out is the catalyst that opens the door, and you all just keep walking through it and keep expanding the programming and educational offerings that we give to those persons. Because at the end of the day, you're making better practitioners, you're making more of future doctors and lawyers.You’re just making better, to me, citizens of the world.

DK: Professor Tiffany Simmons, thank you so much for joining us on the Inside-Out podcast.

TS: Thank you so much for having me. Have a wonderful day.

Podcast production assistance by Mathew Albert, a criminal justice student at Temple University who is working with the Inside-Out Center through an internship sponsored by the Joyce Salzberg Center for Professional Development at Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts.

Tiffany Simmons

Tiffany Simmons

Click here to apply to the 2024 Inside-Out Instructor Training Institutes.