Prison exchange program expanded due to popularity

Inside Out offers incarcerated individuals unique opportunities to participate in creative arts activities

Ever since Associate Professor of History Reiko Hillyer introduced the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program to Lewis & Clark in 2011, the class has been in high demand among students. With the aid of the Mellon Foundation’s Healing Social Suffering Through Narrative Grant, the program is expanding to offer more Inside Out classes and make the instructor training more accessible.

The Inside Out Program was originally founded in 1997 at Temple University in Philadelphia, but now over 150 colleges and universities host Inside Out courses.

“I was made aware of the program by a colleague who teaches at University of Indiana,” Hillyer said. “I was a visiting professor, but I was really determined to bring Inside Out to Lewis & Clark … So I took the training in 2011 and taught my first Lewis & Clark class with Columbia River Correctional Institution.”

Once Hillyer became a permanent professor, she was able to include her Inside Out Class, Crime and Punishment in the United States, in her regular rotation. It is offered every other year and accepts 15 students.

“For a better part of the decade, I was trying to encourage other people to take the training, because there was so clearly an interest and it was so clearly transformative and memorable and important and significant,” Hillyer said. “However, the training is very, very intense. And it’s expensive, and you can’t expect people out of their own lives and out of their own pocket to be doing professional development.”

This past summer, Associate Professor of French Molly Robinson completed the Inside Out Training. Each year, one faculty member is selected for the Instructor Training Grant, which compensates for their time spent taking the training course and allocates funds for their class materials. For this summer’s training course, the application is due Jan. 12. 

“The online training was … six full days in a row and very immersive,” Robinson said to The Source. “While it was sort of grueling to be online all that time, it created a real sense of community and bonding … (It) was designed to push individuals to go deep within themselves to find things that have impacted and influenced them and brought them to where they are today, and to share those experiences with these people who are initially strangers, who then become just for that one week, a group of people you can really appreciate.”

The training was led by the founder and executive director of the Inside Out Program at Temple University, Lori Pompa, in collaboration with a group of five co-facilitators. A critical aspect of the training’s structure was the role of coaches, who are formerly incarcerated students.

“The coaches who had been incarcerated were so open and articulate about their experiences,” Robinson said. “The training allows you, forces you, to see the incarcerated students and formerly incarcerated coaches as human beings who have a story, who have troubles, and joy, and pain … You can’t disregard what is happening in our prison system.”

Robinson will teach her first Inside Out course in the fall of 2023, a comparative literature or world literature class tentatively titled “The Cry of Freedom.” Associate Professor of Theatre Rebecca Lingafelter will also teach an Inside Out class in the spring of 2024, which will be available as a way to complete requirements for the theatre major. 

Lingafelter has already been involved with the Inside Out Program as a leader of a devised performance as the art-focused final project of the class. However, her background working in prisons goes further back as part of the Public Theater Mobile Shakespeare Unit in New York.

“That is where they take a play, adapt it for a small cast and then take it out into New York to various different kinds of performance spaces,” Lingafelter said. “We went to a houseless shelter, we went to the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, we went to a youth program. So different kinds of communities, bringing Shakespeare there … taking the skills and stories of theatre and applying them to communities and contexts that aren’t inherently theatrical.”

Lingafelter began collaborating with Hillyer in 2018 when Hillyer decided to shift the final projects from a visual arts to a performance arts focus. Hillyer had worked with an artist named Emily Squires for three years to construct unique projects. One particularly memorable project involved designing original books and giving one to every student in the class. When Hillyer felt it was time to explore other means of self expression, she turned to Lingafelter. 

“Theatre was the next obvious step, because it’s a form of storytelling, and the class is all about storytelling,” Hillyer said. “It allows an expression of a range of human experiences that a research paper can’t do. The class is not just an academic class, but a really holistic class that engages our souls and our existential questions about right and wrong and about human connection and human worth.”

During the  Spring 2018 semester Lingafelter led exercises which included creating and reflective writing, movement, song and rhythm, resulting in a devised theatre piece performed at the prison. However, due to the pandemic, the classes at the prison had to end and the LC students finished the semester independently on Zoom. 

“It was devastating for the people inside, who were not only losing out on the educational opportunity and the contact with outsiders, but who were in fear for their lives because of the way COVID was spreading, and how it was being mishandled,” Hillyer said. “I tried to come up with improvised ways of getting them material. Many of them were taking the course for college credit, in order to get the credit, you still have to do the work. Zoom is off the table, you cannot have a Zoom class in the prison in this particular prison. They’re completely cut off.”

This coming semester, the class will be in person and will culminate in another devised performance, this time expanding its reach outside of the prison.

“Over the past three years, Reiko and I have been working to figure out a way to take the material that we make in that class and share it with a wider audience,” Lingafelter said. “Both as a way to uplift the voices of the people who are on the inside and don’t have the chance to kind of share their experiences very much with the world, and as a way to educate people about the carceral state and the history of mass incarceration in the country in an artistic kind of frame.”

A grant from the Oregon Community Foundation will allow the professors to produce a three night performance on the Portland Center Stage with professional actors to bring the devised vision to life on the outside.

Regardless of the class format, the unification of the two groups is what remains important to Hillyer..

“It seems obvious that it’s mutually beneficial, but just in case it needs saying, the people who are inside benefit,” Hillyer said. “Not just because they’re getting college credits, or stimulation or relief from boredom, but because they’re being treated as human beings with something to offer. They’re being seen as something other than a disposable, dangerous person.”

For professors involved with this program, one of the ultimate goals is to demystify the people behind bars.

“Prison is something that is built purposefully, to isolate, to demonize, to disappear people,” Hillyer said. “And unless we have a loved one in prison, we can probably live our lives not thinking much about it or the people inside it … If you’ve looked (a prisoner) in the eye, and they look you in the eye, you will be forever changed.”

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