Pathway to Resistance: Claremont Students Learn Alongside Incarcerated Students

By Emily Diamond ’20

A black and white image of books on a table.

Twenty-four students form a circle in a classroom inside California Rehabilitation Center (CRC). Twelve of these students attend The Claremont Colleges; the other 12 are incarcerated individuals. The classroom is a stripped-down environment with no phones or laptops permitted and no decorations hanging on the walls. The Claremont College students, otherwise known as the “outside” students, wear loose-fitting black pants and t-shirts, while the incarcerated students, referred to as  “inside” students, wear their standard-issue prison uniforms.

The classroom described is an Inside-Out class, part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a national program in which college students and young incarcerated students come together in an integrated learning environment. The aim of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is to “facilitate dialogue and education across profound social differences.”

Many people criticize the criminal justice system as overly punitive, non-rehabilitative, and dehumanizing. In conversations with various students and faculty who participate in the program, Inside-Out classes offer an antidote to these systemic problems. They describe these types of programs as “a pathway to resistance,” “a means to cross valleys of differences,” and “a political act.”

Within the classroom, every inside student sits between two outside students and vice versa. The students talk to each other about the assigned readings, how their days are going, and their future goals. Becca Wainess ’19 describes the impact of building meaningful connections with inside students. “Through these conversations, we all learn how to humanize each other.”

“A special community is created for those two hours of class,” adds Nathalie Marx ’21, a sociology and legal studies major who wants to pursue a career in restorative justice.

Pomona College Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science Nicole Holliday has been involved with the Inside-Out program for two years. In her Inside-Out class Linguistic Discrimination, students start each day with an ice-breaker before learning about how language can be used as a tool of empowerment or disempowerment for individuals and groups. Priya Canzius ’20 says that in the class, students explore how language and dialect can reinforce power hierarchies, as in the case of how speakers of African American vernacular English frequently face discrimination for their language use.

“The range of life experiences contributes to differences in how we view world issues such as oppression, equality, and discrimination, which forces us to think critically and consider multiple viewpoints,” adds Marx.

This dynamic was on display at a recent session of Introduction to U.S. Politics taught by Scripps Associate Professor of Politics Thomas Kim. Students were asked to write about instances in which they witnessed people using different forms of power to pursue their interests. The following week, Kim anonymized the responses and returned them to the students so they could compare the experiences of power between students at CRC and The Claremont Colleges. “This lesson was unique because I saw the discrepancy between those who have agency and my inside classmates, who have been neglected by the government and other institutions of power,” says Wainess.

This isn’t Scripps students’ first foray into criminal and restorative justice projects. The Claremont Colleges have been involved in prison work for the past 20 years through partnerships with organizations including Prison Education Project, the California Rehabilitation Center, Prototypes, Crossroads, Chino Institute for Women, and Camp Afflerbaugh-Paideand. There has also been on-campus activism through the Prison Abolition Club. However, the Inside-Out model was first used by The Claremont Colleges five years ago, largely due to the prompting of Nigel Boyle, current Dean of Pitzer College, who had heard about the national program and wanted to implement it. Boyle collaborated with Tessa Hicks Peterson, director of the Community Engagement Center at Pitzer College, whose mission is to “forward social responsibility and community engagement in surrounding communities.” Hicks Peterson first taught the first class, Healing Arts and Social Change, and then took over running the program.

Hicks Peterson was immediately drawn to the structure of Inside-Out courses. “In the classroom, we are able to foster growth and connection and create a liberating, transformative education in a space that is often built around isolation,” she says.

She noticed that the classes were mutually beneficial for both inside and outside students. “Through this program, the inside students are seen as scholars who have contributing powers and intellectual worth. For the outside students, there is a freedom that comes in the oddest of places, in the least free place, because a lot of the pretense that is found in Claremont classrooms is dropped inside.”

Inside students have the added benefit of receiving college credit that could transfer to another four-year institution. In addition, for every class an inside student completes, three weeks are removed from their sentence.

After witnessing the success of the Inside-Out model, Hicks Peterson decided to expand the program at The Claremont Colleges with the help of faculty and students. Along with her collaborators, she secured a $1.1 million grant over five years from the Mellon Foundation. Tyee Griffith, the program administrator for the grant, is working to expand the initative by offering more classes, implementing the program in more prisons, leading a conference to educate people about mass incarceration, and creating associate’s and bachelor’s degree pathways. Griffith is currently collaborating with Norco Community College to create degree pathways at CRC, and she is in contact with the California Institute for Women (CIW) about applying the Inside-Out model there. Another goal is to expand the curricular offerings in justice studies, with the vision of someday creating a Center of Justice Education at The Claremont Colleges. “With the grant, we are able to dream of the big picture,” says Hicks Peterson. “We want to change the system from a political level so that we don’t even have to have an ‘inside’ to go to.”

The expansion of the program is already evident. This year, there have been 10 Inside-Out classes—a substantial increase from the initial two classes in 2014. Next year they aim to offer at least 12.

Before the course begins, faculty go through an intensive six-day training that includes several days inside the prison, where they receive input from inside students. Currently, 22 faculty are trained across The Claremont Colleges, though the grant will help fund further trainings.

For Wainess, creating a connection between education systems and prisons is the first step to rethinking the entire criminal justice system. “By bridging the gap between these two institutions, we are able to deconstruct the dominant narrative of incarcerated individuals, in which they are portrayed as dangerous and malicious,” she says. “It’s deeply important for people to have interactions at a criminal institution. There is no way to make change unless people know about it.”

Marx is optimistic for the future of the program and its lasting impact on society. “It’s promising to know there are Claremont College students and faculty who want to be in that environment to learn equally alongside incarcerated citizens. The walls between prison institutions and education systems are already being broken down.”

To wit, at the end of Holliday’s linguistics course, one inside student wrote, “I used to think it was me against the world, but now I realize it’s all of us against the system.”