Kent State offers history course in prison

Allyson Nichols

This semester, a group of Kent State students have gone to prison to experience a new kind of class.

Crime in the 19th/20th Century (HIST 38095) is a part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The program is a national program that allows students and inmates, also known as “inside students” to learn together in the prison.

The program started about a decade ago outside of Philadelphia in the Graterford State Correctional Institution by Criminal Justice Professor Lori Pompa at Temple University.

Prior to the start of the program, Pompa had taken her 15 undergraduate students on a tour of a prison at the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, PA where they got to meet with a panel of incarcerated men, most of whom were serving life sentences, and discuss various social issues.

After the discussion, a man from the panel suggested that the conversation could be expanded over the course of a semester in which incarcerated and non-incarcerated students could do the same work and engage in educational discussions.

Pompa was intrigued with the idea and began strategizing ways to make the program work at a facility closer to her university. She later approached the Philadelphia Prison System with the idea and in 1997, The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was born.

The idea was introduced to Kent’s campus by a new professor in the history department, Elaine Frantz, last spring. Frantz had previously been involved with the program while working at Duquesne University before coming to Kent State.

The curriculum followed with these classes is a lot more of a basic curriculum than you would get in a regular college class. Often times, the class chosen is a criminology, psychology, sociology, or social work class.

Trumbull Correctional Institute is a level 3 facility meaning it is a medium-level security prison. Students that wanted to be in the program this fall had to go through paperwork over the summer, along with safety and security briefings.

Despite what some may think, the class itself is actually a lot like a regular class.

“It’s always super easy once people get there,” Frantz said. “Within 10 minutes, people will feel really comfortable and I don’t think anybody’s expecting that.”

Outside students from the class have found that the class has really changed their perceptions of those inside the prison and that they have actually learned quite a bit from their inside classmates.

“They are always extremely eager to discuss and share their views on the course’s reading materials, they have actually taught me a lot,” said Evan Hoctor, a junior history major. “One of them said that since his incarceration, he has always tried to be a ‘first responder’. A ‘first reactor’ is someone who charges into a situation without thinking and deals with their issues impulsively. A ‘first responder’ like firefighters, police, and EMS think through their issue before heading into it by keeping a cool head and making sure not to overreact to the situation. He told me this at a time in my life when I really needed it and I have held on to it since.”

Another outside student has found that the class has allowed her to see and discuss the perspectives of the individuals she has come in contact with.

“Here at Kent, we can run into someone who comes from a different walk of life than you and we manage to have meaningful discussion,” said Shaheeda Haque, a junior economics major. “In our class at the Institute, we have so many different perspectives coming from diverse-minded individuals that I would not have been able to meet and have this kind of discussion with if not for this class. I learn something new from them every class.”

Inside students are screened before being allowed in the class by the professor and security at the prison, so the ones chosen are the ones that have shown that they are able to participate in the class.

Often times, inmates don’t have much of an opportunity to learn unless they’re nearing release, according to an article written by Justin George on The Marshall Project’s website. The article speaks about a survey conducted over 2,000 inmates found that prisons often fail at giving inmates the proper education they need for their transition outside of the prison with one case stating that a prison biology class consisted mostly of watching the BBC’s “Planet Earth.”

The Inside-Out program’s mission is to allow both inside and outside students to have the same opportunities when it comes to transformative learning experiences that have an emphasis on various issues of social concern.

Frantz hopes the program will be able to evolve over the next few years and that more professors will be able to teach at the prison, allowing the program to become something bigger.

“I have found that teaching this class has been one of the most important things I have done as far as just understanding American History,” Frantz stated. “Just teaching in the prisons has really helped me understand my field a lot better and how American History works.”

She also believes the program could be very beneficial to everyone as it allows a better understanding of those inside the prison and our country.

 “One percent of all Americans are under penal control right now,” Frantz said. “One percent of all Americans are in prison, in jail, or on probation or parole, so if you want to understand what’s happening in America you can’t just ignore that one percent. It’s actually really important, so I would just urge people to think about doing either the class or some sort of class like this if they want to get a more holistic sense of how the country works.”

For more information on the program, visit their website.

Allyson Nichols is the Kent State Stark reporter. Contact her at [email protected].