We know that ‘how’ students learn is as important as ‘what’ students learn, and this includes university undergraduates. In our discipline of criminology, students often arrive at our universities keen to learn about ‘the criminal mind’. When we ask students why they picked criminology as their programme of study, we are often met with details of their fascination with different TV shows and movies that sensationalise both ‘criminals’ and those who seek to understand them.
Through the Inside-Out prison exchange programme [https://www.insideoutcenter.org/] we seek to challenge these preconceived notions and encourage critical thinking. Inside-Out is a course involving an equal mix of ‘inside’ students (people in prison) and ‘outside’ students (people at university) studying alongside each other in the prison environment for one academic term. Inside-Out started in 1997 at Temple University in partnership with Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania in the United States (Pompa, 2013). Inspired by transformative education thinkers such as Freire (1968), Inside-Out’s learning model focusses on dialogue and peer-to-peer learning, drawing on the academic experience of outside students and the lived experience of those in the criminal justice system.
‘Inside-Out’s learning model focusses on dialogue and peer-to-peer learning, drawing on the academic experience of outside students and the lived experience of those in the criminal justice system.’
Inside-Out has grown into a global initiative, first coming to the UK in 2014. Since then, we have set up our own accredited prison–university partnerships in our current academic institutions. In 2015 the University of Kent set up a partnership with men’s prison HMP Swaleside, followed by a partnership between the University of Greenwich and women’s prison HMP Downview in 2017. In our Inside-Out courses, a typical class involves outside students going into the prison setting once a week for one term and learning alongside inside students, facilitated by the university course leaders. Students learn through a series of structured discussion-based activities throughout the two-hour sessions that aim to foster connection, collaboration and critical reflection. Each class is themed around different questions of criminological interest, such as: ‘how should victims be treated within the criminal justice system?’ and ‘how should we regulate drugs?’. All students are assessed by writing reflective journals about the sessions throughout the term.
In 2019, we conducted an evaluation of student experiences across both these Inside-Out partnerships. Our evaluation [https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3A9ecf3a5a-485e-4c63-b91c-c0ae3e431b23#pageNum=1] found that students reported several key benefits of their experience of the Inside-Out classes. These included a feeling of connectedness across difference via their exposure to diverse views and opinions, increased confidence in their academic skills, and a more enhanced understanding of the criminal justice system. By learning with and from inside students, outside students were challenged to rethink what they thought about who was in prison. One outside student explained how ‘you just talk [to] inside students and they have kids, they have families, they do all normal stuff that normal people do, but I think it just like humanises them in a way that I would have never have thought of before.’ This connection across difference was also reflected in the inside students’ experiences, as highlighted by the following quote:
I was enlightened by some of the opinions that the outside students had. ’Cause I was thinking that they would like, stay within their box, do you understand, where it wasn’t like that. Some of them was coming out with opinions and I was thinking, okay, we’re on the same page here.
As we have discussed elsewhere (Zampini et al, 2019), Inside-Out is a space for students to experience their shared humanity, which is a powerful tool to dismantle prejudice. If we want students to complete their university degrees with a broader understanding of the world around them, then innovative programmes such as Inside-Out are valuable additions to the student experience. Likewise, if we want people to leave prison and reintegrate within society, initiatives like Inside-Out provide a space for education and collaboration with others. In the words of founder Lori Pompa, ‘Inside-Out moves beyond the walls that separate us’ (2013, p. 133). We hope to see these metaphorical walls continue to crumble across higher education and make space for shared learning across difference.
Freire, P. (1968, 3rd edition 1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin Books.
Pompa, L. (2013). One brick at a time: The power and possibility of dialogue across the prison wall. The Prison Journal, 93(2), 127–134. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032885512472479
Zampini, G., Osterman, L., Stengel, C. & Bennallick, M. (2019). Turning gender Inside-Out: Delivering higher education in women’s carceral spaces. Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, 6(1), 62–77. https://doi.org/10.25771/patp-a616
 The research evaluation was funded by the Peter Harris Trust at the University of Greenwich and the University of Kent Faculty of Social Sciences Faculty Research Fund.