Reflections from Inside Out training
Going Inside Out (and back again)
" ‘It’s a transformative experience’; those were the words used by numerous academic friends who had had the same opportunity that we were now fortunate enough to be given: going to Pennsylvania for the international Inside-Out Prison Exchange Programme facilitator training. While we both share an innate suspicion of big words such as ‘transformative’ – maybe particularly when attached to a course or training of any kind - we packed our bags with open minds and a healthy dose of curiosity. In our bags we also carried a great sense of respect. After all, this is a programme that stands on 20 years of experience and poise, and that we had heard volumes of positive comments about.
For those of you unfamiliar with the programme, Inside-Out was started by Lori Pompa in 1997. The original idea for the programme came through a dialogue between Lori, who in 1995 was taking university students on prison visits, and Paul, whom Lori met during a prison panel made up primarily of men who were serving life sentences and university students. On this occasion, Paul and Lori agreed that extending that one-day dialogue to continuous meetings for the duration of a whole semester was an idea worth pursuing. Fast-forward 20 years (…and a lot of dedicated work by those in the driving seat!): Inside-Out courses are now taught in hundreds of institutions across 37 US states, as well as in Australia, Canada, Mexico, and various locations across Europe, with more than 30,000 students having participated both inside and out. The ground-breaking nature of the programme was recognised by the American Society of Criminology in 2016, when they gave Lori the teaching award for lifetime achievement.
If we were to choose just one word to describe the training, the word intense would be the most likely candidate. It was intense in terms of time and commitment, but also intense in terms of emotions, immersion, as well as in the power of the unique experience. In accordance with its methodology, this is exactly what the space is supposed to do. Inside-Out, as noted by one of the co-facilitators leading the training, is about ‘creating spaces where we can be our best selves’. But how are spaces generated to enable this? As we soon realised, it starts right at the door. Arriving at the training, we were asked to leave our assumptions in the hallway, and resist the temptation of using simplistic labels when we communicate. As was repeatedly emphasised during the week; we are all so much more than our worst mistake(s). No one act defines us. Simplistic binaries of good and bad may be an infatuating idea; it's simple and it's easy. But we are not simple or easy beings, so any lack of complexity inevitably limits us. This is why labels make such a disservice to us all - they categorise us and put us into boxes. At the same time, they stamp us and give others a carte blanche to treat us not according to the self that we are today, but according to what society thinks that specific label represents. Leaving our labels and assumptions outside the classroom allows us to learn about the person, the student, the educator in a deeper and more meaningful way.
While challenging others can be deceivingly easy at times, challenging yourself is one of the toughest of tasks. But it is also hugely rewarding.
Central to the pedagogy, and to the programme overall, is the breaking down of hierarchies in teaching and learning. Not unlike Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Inside-Out is very much a school of citizenship underpinned by the principles of equality, democracy and equal participation, encouraging people to find a voice, which is particularly crucial for those who have been structurally excluded via silencing processes in a system that reproduces inequality. During the training, we observed how, oftentimes, teachers talk too much and students talk too little. As expressively noted by one of our fellow trainees: ‘this training has taught me when to speak up and when to shut up’. But this is a hard lesson for many lecturers. We as educators, schooled in the arts of top-down teaching delivery, are very much used to dictating, directing and imparting knowledge. Conversely, critical pedagogy emphasises that participatory education is much more of a bottom-up and dialogic process, where teachers become facilitators of peer learning and mutual engagement, where students can become teachers and community leaders, inspiring others in a perpetuating cycle. Standing on the shoulders of years of experience and active learning, this is an ideal that we know has had powerful effects in the past. It worked under the shared leadership of Myles Horton in the USA during the civil rights movement; it worked for Paulo Freire, instilling a sense of class consciousness, unity and purpose in Brazil. It works in the present through Inside-Out, creating a sense of community, citizenship, shared and respectful spaces of exchange, rights and responsibilities.
This pedagogy is moreover tied to very particular patterns of learning. A key part of this is the circle. All the teaching is done in a circle where no one occupies the centre. In this way, a more democratic and participatory learning environment is enabled. The meaning of the circle goes beyond the practical and moves into the symbolic; this is about creating a community of learning, a shared space for opening up different perspectives and ideas. It is this combined meaning of the circle that makes it powerful. For the circle to be democratic however, everyone needs to be willing to share something of themselves; to contribute. And maybe here we faced our first culture shock - we are supposed to share about ourselves in an emotionally connected manner in a circle of about 25 people that we only just met? Wait a minute, what? Did they miss the memo that noted that we have just come from the UK, perceived to be one of the most reserved cultures across the Western landscape? Our gut automatically reached for that sarcastic corner to ensure that our defences could remain intact. Besides, why should we share about ourselves in a setting like this? But maybe more to the point, why do they think anyone is interested in hearing about it? On several occasions at the outset, we found ourselves questioning whether we took a wrong turn and ended up at a random station where AA meets the evangelical church (…and let's all get on the redemption train!). However, we soon realised that we were too quick to judge.
While challenging others can be deceivingly easy at times, challenging yourself is one of the toughest of tasks. But it is also hugely rewarding. And this is exactly what this space allowed us to do. Going in with a somewhat sceptical mind, we soon found ourselves challenged in completely new ways, which was nothing less than powerful. Giving ourselves a chance to participate and question our own thinking, we started to see the power of the methodology in action. Specifically, by creating a democratic, intellectual and emotional space, we were asked to critique our own thinking, not by direct questions, but by collective collaborations. Collaborative working across all kinds of barriers; may that be working with people who have completely different life experiences to you, living in an opposite corner of the world than you, or indeed, working with individuals who have spent more years of their life behind walls than what we have walked on this earth. There is great power in finding commonalities in such diverse learning environments. More than anything, it is a forceful reminder of our shared humanity, which goes across borders, ages, and experiences.
The resilience and hope we were met with left few of us untouched, and most of us overwhelmed with awe and respect.
That said, though we shared a space and thought-provoking conversations about big questions around justice, equality and society, we could not neglect the walls separating us. During the weeklong intensive training, we spent three days inside Graterford prison – a maximum security prison facility holding around 4000 men - being taught the skills of facilitating an Inside-Out classroom by incarcerated individuals, many of whom are currently serving life sentences. At the end of the day, we - the outside trainees - left the prison building. They - the inside trainers - returned to their locked-up cells. The resilience and hope we were met with left few of us untouched, and most of us overwhelmed with awe and respect. In Graterford prison, we were faced head on with the lived consequences of an inhumane and destructive so called ‘justice’ system. The USA incarcerates people at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world and retains ‘Life without Parole’ sentencing in all states except for Alaska. Life without parole - the utmost expression of retribution - was introduced and practiced more widely in many states during the latter part of the 20th century, often used as an alternative to the death penalty, which is still an option in 31 states. This sentence, crudely and realistically dubbed ‘Death by incarceration’ by many of its victims, does not offer any opportunity for change, reform, or redemption. In the words of the “lifers” at Graterford, “the damnation of a human being of any age to spend the rest of his or her life in prison without even the possibility of a parole hearing review is a negation of the distinctly human capacity for redemption, a denial of the individual's core humanity, and a violation of an inalienable human right”. This is, in Lori’s own words, nothing less than a waste of humanity. These realities are hard to stomach. They are hard to stomach from a distance, and they become impossible not to act upon when you are close by. We could walk out, that's our privilege, but it is also our responsibility to ensure that what is hidden is made visible. To ensure that we all know in what ways we - as a society - use cages, what perpetuates them, and the consequences they have on individuals, communities, and families.
Sitting at the airport waiting for the flight that will take us back across the pond, innumerable thoughts are bouncing back and forth in our busy brain offices. How do we channel this experience into meaningful activity? As two fellow trainees mentioned on the last day; this training has taught us more than what 5 years of PhDing, or indeed more than what 18 years of teaching, ever has. Though we may still be some way from racking up those numbers, the point still feels very valid. Learning in a new way will not only directly impact on the Inside-Out course we are currently setting up at the University of Greenwich; it will make us better teachers in all areas of life. Humans are creatures of habits, and we far too often regurgitate what we know as we struggle to create innovative paths, struggle to challenge ourselves in new and constructive ways. And that is exactly what Inside-Out has done. It is like the blinkers have been taken off and we now have the chance to adopt a broader perspective. So it is with more emotional intelligence and more critical pedagogic minds that we head back across the pond to a) deal with hundreds of emails and b) start to think about exactly how we can help to create progressive spaces within regressive systems. Someone at the training said they live by the motto of ‘just do the next right thing’. For now, the next right thing is to continue this dialogue around transformative education that has been ignited and take one step at a time, ensuring that each step is in the direction of positive change and, in the spirit of Inside-Out, gradually move beyond the walls that separate us."