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Podcast Episode 7

Interview with Jeri Kirby (West Virginia)

October 16, 2019

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The seventh episode of the Inside-Out Podcast features Jeri Kirby, Chair of the Department of Social Sciences and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. Professor Kirby completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute in 2010 with Lori Pompa and taught her first Inside-Out course during the same year. Jeri has co-facilitated several trainings in West Virginia and beyond.

The Inside-Out podcast is hosted by Dave Krueger from The Inside-Out Center, the international headquarters of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program®.

Episode Transcription:

Juwann Bennett: Hi, I’m Juwann Bennett and I teach Inside-Out courses at a state correctional institution through Temple University. Do you want your teaching to have a social justice impact? Do you believe that education should move us beyond the walls that separate us? Then you should apply now for our 2020 instructor training institutes. Locations include: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alabama, Illinois, British Columbia. We still have space available for our West Virginia in January 2020. To find out more, visit our website at or call 215-204-5163. That’s 215-204-5163.

Dave Krueger: In this episode of the Inside-Out Podcast, I speak with Professor Jeri Kirby, Chair of the Department of Social Sciences and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. Professor Kirby completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute in 2010 and taught her first Inside-Out course during the same year. Jeri has co-facilitated several trainings in West Virginia and beyond. What’s unique about Jeri’s story is that she teaches Inside-Out in the same prison system in which she served her own sentence for more than two years.

Jeri Kirby: I thought he was crazy because he wanted me to go back into prisons. But he just felt so strongly about.

DK: I’m Dave Krueger from the Inside-Out Center, the international headquarters of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program based at Temple University in Philadelphia and this is the Inside-Out Podcast. Stay tuned for the conversation with Jeri Kirby after this word by 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 38,000 inside and outside students to move beyond the walls that separate them. We are more than a program...we are changing the world.

DK: (2:50) Jeri Kirby, thank for speaking with me at the Inside-Out podcast. How did you come to be a criminal justice professor? Was that what you always wanted to be?

JK: No actually I wanted to work out for a living. I didn’t even have a clue about becoming a professor in general. I initially wanted to go into physical therapy, then my mother told me that is a hobby not a career. But then it was with my own incarceration actually. I picked up a federal case in 1991. I was 19 or 20 years old at the time in Florida and I got sentenced to a six and a half year split sentence where I did 27 months inside and the rest out on probation. At 18 / 19 years old, what you want to do for the rest of your life jumps around significantly. I had really thought about going into law enforcement, believe it or not, but then I decided to go the other direction not realizing where it would end me up at that time. Towards the end of my sentence I met this young lady, she was 18, her name was Trish, she had just came in, and she had gotten a 15-year sentence, mandatory, basically in a conspiracy charge with her boyfriend. And I was getting ready to be released in ‘94 and...I don't know...something about it – it just hit me to my core. Seeing this young girl she had barely even finished high school and she was facing 15 years and she was gonna do every day of it. And so, that's really when the entire universe shifted. It shifted and I became angry. So I got out. I got out in October of ‘94, and I started college in January of ‘95, so right away. And Initially, I thought that I was gonna go to law school, but then I couldn’t get school loans at that time, you know, ‘cuz I had a drug charge and so I had to work multiple jobs. So I only got to go part-time for the first several years and it seemed like... It was taking forever. But then eventually, I kicked in and realized I was never gonna finish until I started going full time. So I made that commitment, and, when I got towards the end of my undergrad, I met Doctor Jim Nolan which, he’s pretty well known in the Inside-Out community, he’s a full professor at West Virginia University. He left the FBI to be a professor, and we made this really odd friendship. But he became a mentor to me and he knew I wanted to go to law school and he was willing to do anything he could to help me. But basically at that time I went to the WVU Law school to talk to them about the challenges with my conviction and just wanted to be up front and they literally said to me that I could go to law school, but they could not guarantee, at that time, that I could practice. So, of course, that really tilted my universe because I couldn’t imagine spending three years in law school and not being able to practice in the end. And that has since changed dramatically, that was 20 years ago. So, Doctor Jim Nolan said something to me that has resonated with me, he said “You’re gonna have to go to school until they can no longer tell you what you can and can’t do.” And that’s exactly what I did. I started with him as an RA and got my masters in Sociology and it really just went from there. I started doing some teaching – I had never dreamed – ever dreamed of being a professor. Never thought about it. So that’s really how I got started into it. I actually majored in political science, my PHD is in political science because I really thought I would have to stand toe-to-toe with the politicians to fight prison policy reform, that that’s how I would have to do it because with a felony conviction, they would never take me serious. And I’ve since realized that wasn’t necessarily true, but that’s what I really thought I’d have to do at that time.

DK: (8:13) I think you had already been teaching traditional criminal justice classes for a while, right? How did you actually get connected to Inside-Out?

JK: Well again, Doctor Jim Nolan. I know he gets a lot of props, but he deserves ‘em. He came to me and he said “You’ve got to see this program”. And so I actually went to one of his classes, the first class, it was at Pruntytown Correctional Facility. And believe it or not, that was actually the first prison I had been back inside of since my own release. It’s a very open air type of facility so I didn’t really struggle too much going inside of there. But I went in and saw the program and he encouraged me and helped find funding for me to go to the training and from then on I knew that I found something that I had been searching for since my release from prison. That’s really how I got connected, again, with him and then it just became a part of my life, part of my personality, part of who I am.

DK: (9:25) What was it about the experience that resonated with you?

JK: Well, this is an odd connection, but I think everybody can understand. One of the biggest challenges about coming out of prison, believe it or not, is you end up missing the camaraderie that develops while you are incarcerated. You hear a lot of people talk about it with sports teams, and military, and “a strong camaraderie” right? Well it happens in prison too. And when I left prison, honestly, I felt foreign in the free world and I hadn’t even done two and a half years and so, I can’t imagine the 20, 30 years that people can do, but I really did, I felt disconnected, no one can understand me out here alone, literally by myself. And I remember the first day that I came home from prison I did what they call “killed my number”, I didn’t take a halfway house because I felt at that time I was too far away from my family and it would just cause further trouble for them so I chose to not take a halfway house and just stay inside until my actual release date. But my mom she had fixed up this beautiful room for me, and I remember sitting on the edge of that bed and literally, at that moment, thinking that I wanted to go home. As sad and crazy as it is, that environment, that community that I had developed inside, had become my home. Yeah, so that was really hard to function out in society when you had felt like you lost that. Which, I know, some people are gonna think that makes no sense, but it wasn’t until inside-out that I actually found that community again, that I found that camaraderie, I found that open-armed welcoming that I just felt like I never had since I left prison. I know it sounds like a strange transition, but when you’re inside there's something about nobody really being able to judge you, right? You know, we're all in there in khakis, we’re all in there for some form of a felony, but it wasn’t until Inside-Out that I finally felt like no one was judging me.

DK: (11:58) As a person who was formerly incarcerated, how did your experience of the Inside-Out training help you to understand your own unique contribution as an educator?

JK: Well, for the first time people actually wanted to hear what I had to say, so that was life changing for me obviously, and then it dawned on me that that’s what it could bring to other people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. And just started a conversation which made me realize, the majority of people who go through Inside-Out are not formerly incarcerated obviously, and so what it did is it made me realize that there are people out there who thought of me as more than that worst moment in time that I had. They knew I was a person past that event, that I was a daughter, and a friend, and all those things. Not just, you know, a convicted felon. That’s what drew me to the training, but I had no idea the training was gonna give me near as much as it did. Scary to think that I was gonna volunteer,before I even went to the training, I set myself to teach in a federal prison and I went through training in August, early August, and then started my Inside-Out class in mid August so I didn’t have much lapse time, right? Like I went right into it, but I knew I had to. And I honestly have not quit since and that's been over, almost ten years ago now, and the question is: Why isn’t everybody doing it? To be honest.

DK: (13:38) What kind of an impact have you seen on the inside and outside students in your classes over the years?

JK: Oh, a lot. Actually just the other day I was working with a group of guys inside and were getting ready to have a training here and I had them do some reading for the current students – the outside students that were there. The outside students were really supportive and giving some good feedback and all of a sudden one of young ladies stopped, she was all teary-eyed and said, “That poem just made me realize this class is going to end.” For one, as a college professor, you don’t see to many classes where students are begging for it to not end. It just gives them a perspective on a group that would normally turn their back on each other. You’ve got this brand new young generation becoming educated, and a lot of people who are incarcerated would feel like they would be judged by them. People who are inside, a lot of the students would normally say well, “they did this” so they would turn their back on them. The one thing I feel really strongly about is I’ve seen so many students turn forward and begin to take on the fight. To take on the compassion, to continue this to grow, and it may just be conversations. I had a student who got out of class, graduated, and became a state trooper in Pennsylvania. He actually messaged me after working for the state troopers for a couple years and said, “I just felt like you needed to know that every time I have to put someone in the back of my car, I stop for a minute and I think about who they are, and whose son or daughter they might be, or whose mother or father they are, instead of just seeing them at that worst moment and thinking that's everything that they are and expecting nothing but the worst out of them again.” He said, “I began to ask who they are” and he said “I would have never done that without Inside-Out.” I believe that was one of the strongest testimonies I could have ever gotten from an outside student. From inside students, I have watched individuals that are absolutely completely entrenched in a heavy gang culture give up everything because they realized they could be more. They have threats on their lives and challenges and have to go into protective custody because they just knew they could be more, that people actually cared about who they were, that they didn’t have to stay in that life, that there was another path and there were other choices that could be made. Too often kids grow up in a particular environment, especially in the gang lifestyle, and they don’t believe there are other choices, or they’re so comfortable in those tough choices that they just chose to stay, or are forced to stay. So the impact, I’ve watched it from the inside and from the outside, and you know that particular inside student I’m talking about? He got out of the gang. He got out of a gang that doesn’t usually let people out. But he got out and he chose a different path and he’s doing amazing things now. He’s taking his deficits and making them assets, and that's all we can really do.

DK: You have now co-facilitated several Inside-Out trainings over the years. You can give a snapshot of that a training week looks like?

JK: Yes. It’s intense to say the least. It’s exhausting, it’s mentally and emotionally challenging, but it’s almost like giving birth to some way, to something brand new and to a brand new person. It’s about turning a part of you into something else. What you get out of an Inside-Out training is more than you realize until you’re away from it. When you’re in it, it feels like a lot of suffering, it feels like a lot of challenge, it makes you think on levels that you haven’t thought on, you really have to begin to understand yourself because as true teachers we have to understand where we’re teaching from I believe and everything that’s influenced in our lives is where we teach from. Inside-Out gives you the ability to teach from the most authentic place. As the week goes on I ask people to lean into the suffering to some degree because that’s where change is gonna happen. I always say you gotta be comfortable with being uncomfortable and just be present with it. Be present, try not bring in how you think things should be, just take it for what it is. I always say it’s kinda like buying a car. Once you drive it off the lot, really, you can do anything you want to it. Paint it, put big tires on it. Inside-Out is a model. It’s a model that we walk people through during the training, you find the parts of it that work for you, you find the parts of it that touch you in the most way and that you want to share with your students, and you make it into your own. And by the end, hopefully we have developed a very safe community, support group, and just straight friendships, hopefully, that is always the goal and 99.9% of the time we walk away from the trainings with lifelong friends, and supporters, colleagues.

DK: You’ve talked some about individual stories of impact among your students. Do you see Inside-Out as having an impact on society at large, something that goes beyond just the classroom and individuals?

JK: Oh absolutely. I believe that it’s a challenge because you only get to be with 30, maybe 35 students at a time, right? But every one student goes out and talks to other people, whether it’s their parents or fellow students, or their partners, they talk to them, and that talk makes change. It makes people think. And every time somebody’s talking about it saying no, no, these individuals in prison are just like us. Maybe they’ve gotten caught, maybe they’ve gotten a lot of time, and to be honest, a lot of the judgement about people incarcerated comes from policies that give them such extensive time. Well if that person’s got 10 years, then they must be a really bad person. But it's not, it’s bad policy. You know I think that it brings that recognition, because that is what has to happen. We have to understand that maybe as humans, we make mistakes. But as a culture, as a society, we are not mistakes. That’s different. The mistakes are policies that make not-so-bad people look like people who should be ousted from our society. And I believe truthfully that that is what shines the light on it. It is conversations that would never happen. Or very likely not happen and even if they did happen they’d happen with judgement. So as we send out more people, and it’s become my life work to get this message out, whether it’s through training instructors, or having classes, or doing panels or whatever it is. There’s camaraderie in prison that happens and when people get out, if we don’t embrace this entire culture and society of people and give them a different camaraderie, different community, then they will stay with what they know because somebody has to accept them, and if we do not as a society, then why would they ever be different than the individuals that picked up the case? Hopefully the bigger picture is to just be willing to hear people, to see people. I think a lot of society wants to see the good in people, but they have to give them the chance to see it. And its black and white – the parole boards, the cases, the jackets that come with people, those are just in black and white – on white paper with black ink and they are not describing a person, realizing that people are more than that. I think that’s one of the goals of Inside-Out, to just start a conversation, because once we start a conversation then – I always tell people to recognize what’s their “once in a lifetime” you gotta know ‘em when you see ‘em and Inside- Out is that for a lot of people. Every experience, every class I’ve had, I’ve had over 20-some classes, and every one of them has given me something else, every one of them has been a “once in a lifetime” or something. So coming at it with that open-mindedness and being present and being willing to see it, that is how Inside-Out changes an entire culture.

DK: Jeri, thank you so much for speaking with me and sharing your story.

JK: Aw, David thank you for your time and thank you to all of the Inside-Out supporters out there and just keep doing the good things you’re doing.

Podcast production assistance by Elijah Glovas-Kurtz, a student at Temple University.

Jeri Kirby

Jeri Kirby

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