My course closely follows the overall Inside-Out pedagogical model, which is structured in the following way (Table 1
The content of the course also closely aligns with Inside-Out curriculum guidelines. The first three weeks of class reflect Inside-Out curriculum directives for effectively setting up the course and creating parameters that are conducive to learning. Week one includes separate meetings with both the inside and outside students. During each session, students are seated in a circle and introduce themselves, thus setting the tone for the combined classes that will follow throughout the semester. I also present a brief history of the Inside-Out program, followed by documents that must be signed by each student, including a waiver and the prison/Inside-Out rules and expectations. A prison official then meets with the outside students and discusses the Department of Corrections policies and parameters, particularly related to clothing and behavior. I follow with a review of the syllabus and course guidelines. Students complete an informational questionnaire, present some of their responses, and the remaining time is devoted to questions. Following this session, I meet with the inside students and facilitate the same discussion, with the exception of the prison security officer. Each group concludes with a closing circle, which is an integral part of the Inside-Out course structure. This particular week, each student is asked to offer a single word that reflects how they are feeling at the end of the first class, which immediately helps to foster a climate in which every student’s voice is equal and valued. At this point, students are typically excited and anxious about their first combined class session the following week and there is recognition that their feelings are shared. The Inside-Out pedagogical approach during week one aligns with feminist pedagogical principles, as all students are positioned to direct the conversation with their responses, questions, and personal reactions.
Week two, the first combined session at the prison, is designed to establish a communal space where all students feel equally valued and the groundwork is laid for productive dialogue. Each student is directed to alternate their seating between inside and outside students, ensuring that inside students do not sit next to their inside peers and outside students do not sit next to their outside peers. In short, all students are immediately shifted out of their comfort zones and a potentially oppositional “us versus them” dynamic is avoided through the inside/outside balance of the circle. The circle is, as previously stated, an integral part of the program. “In that circle,” Pompa explains, “everyone is equal—with an equal voice, and an equal stake in the learning process. Everyone does the same reading, writing, grappling with complex issues together, in a shared learning process (Pompa 2013, p. 16
). During the first combined session, the circle is especially instrumental in breaking down barriers that could potentially inhibit course dynamics. With the alternating seating arrangement in place, we begin the class. Each student is directed to create a name tag, including only their first or preferred name, which will be used throughout the semester. The creation of nametags, and the use of first names in particular, is important not only in relation to getting to know each other. The practice also reinforces equity, as the correctional facility where I teach allows both inside and outside students to follow Inside-Out policy and use first names rather than last names or offender numbers.7
Moreover, each student and the instructor participate, dismantling hierarchies and underscoring the notion of equality. The short activity also alleviates the anxiety that most students feel at the beginning of this class session, as each completes a “hands-on” task.
We then shift to the Wagon Wheel, our first icebreaker, which requires outside students to move their chairs and create a circle facing outward. Inside students then form a second circle around the outside students, with one inside and one outside student facing each other. Each set of inside/outside partners has 90 seconds to answer an open-ended question, such as “One of my favorite movies is …” or “The thing I’m most proud of in my life is ….” The activity is intentionally set up so that inside students rotate around outside students. As Steven Shankman notes, if the outside students rotated around the “stationary” inside students, “it could create the impression that the inside students are being made objects of the gaze of a group of tourists from the outside” (Shankman 2013, p. 145
). The Wagon Wheel icebreaker consistently ranks as one of the top activities when students reflect on the course at the end of the semester. Pompa explains that the icebreaker “is a simple, nonthreatening, and nonintrusive way for people in the group to quickly meet one another” (Pompa 2011, p. 266
). According to Turenne, icebreakers in the Inside-Out course also “allow for the gradual building of trust such a group dynamic requires (Turenne 2013, p. 127
). Students indicate at the end of the semester that the Wagon Wheel (and week two in general) are particularly powerful because their assumptions and stereotypes are immediately dismantled with the realization that they share commonalities with their peers.
The remainder of the second class includes another icebreaker, a review of the syllabus and course parameters, brainstorming guidelines for dialogue and discussion,8
and approximately 15 minutes toward the end of class for each student to reflect on and share their interpretation of the following Dostoyevsky quote: “The degree of civilization in society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Following this discussion, each student is asked to mention, in one word, what they are feeling as a response to this experience.9
The second week of class is significant in part because it sets up the concept of “teaching itself,” which Gitte Verna Butin describes as the moment of instructional “surrender” where “students are free to lead the way their own way” (Butin 2013, p. 99
). The alignment with feminist principles is evident, as the class session destabilizes hierarchies through student-centered icebreakers, the creation of name tags, and the use of first names, all of which foster connection and equality.10
Moreover, the final quote positions students for what is to follow throughout the semester: all students voices are to be valued and all students are expected to engage in and guide the dialogue each week. One of my students noted the impact of these practices when she was selected to speak at our closing ceremony: “Instead of segregated rows, we got a circle that no one was excluded from. Instead of a number we all got name tags … We got each other at face value. No stereotypes, hidden agendas, or judgment. A room filled with intelligence, respect, equality, and friendships no matter how brief the encounter.” The student’s quote speaks to the multifaceted dynamics at work in the class from the very beginning of the semester.
The concept of embodiment is also relevant to our understanding of the Inside-Out course and its intersections with feminism and communication. Pompa explains that the “circular seating and emphasis on listening opens up new avenues of engagement between students, leading to an interpersonal as well as intellectual experience” (Pompa 2011, p. 267
). She goes on to state that “[i]deally, these transformations merge embodied experiences with heady intellectual inquiry” (Pompa 2011, p. 267
). For example, the meanings of freedom can be unpacked and complicated, as outside students are temporarily and physically confined within the walls of the prison and inside students may experience a newfound intellectual freedom through the exploration of personal experiences in the context of broader academic concepts (Pompa 2011, p. 267
). Butin also speaks to the relevance of embodiment and the ways in which it “manifests itself in the place-based specificity of being in a physical space of constraint” (Butin 2013, p. 100
). She explains:
During class, the constraint applies to the whole group. The moment when the outside students prepare to leave the constraining space, by contrast, is at first awkward for everyone. On numerous occasions, however, the inside students took the lead in acknowledging the moment. In doing so, they changed it from what could have, using the post-structuralist feminists’ vocabulary, been a voyeuristic desire to learning about the “Other” into an opportunity for shared reflection.
This notion of embodiment reflects feminist pedagogies that value the personal, which in this case entails the individual and simultaneously communal “personal” encounter of being equal participants during the class, yet at the end experiencing that moment of awkwardness about which Butin writes. In my course, especially during week two, there has consistently been a moment at the end when students seem unsure about how to proceed. In a typical college classroom, students would pack up and leave, each at their own pace. In this context, however, there is uncertainty that I believe is rooted, at least in part, in the physical space and the recognition that course parameters are no longer in place. In my class, like Butin’s, inside students often take the lead in leaving the room. This act of agency on the part of those who live in the constraining space is powerful, as they acknowledge, through this initiating action, their familiarity with the space and their return to the constraining environment that is their home. This act and these types of moments reinforce the powerful nature of the course itself in establishing equality, as our separate departures bring us back to the reality that beyond the parameters of the classroom, the inside students remain in prison and the outside students leave the facility and experience the freedoms that have been taken away from their inside peers. These personal, embodied experiences offer opportunities for critical reflection, especially when understood through the framework of academic concepts and content. When I went through the training institute, I still remember leaving Graterford Prison after our first session with the Inside-Out think tank. The physical act of walking away from the facility, knowing that my “inside” think tank peers were still constrained within its walls, created within me a sense of cognitive dissonance. In this context, we were for a time equal, but yet we were not. This physical, embodied experience still facilitates my thinking on the purpose of prisons, the meanings of freedom, and my own privileged position. Outside students have shared similar reactions as we walk toward the gatehouse following the end of our class sessions. Likewise, inside students have also revealed that they reflect on this dynamic.
Following the pivotal class session during week two, students meet separately during week three so that we can debrief the previous combined session and address any concerns or issues prior to the following class. I also provide an overview of incarceration, including statistics on women in prison and the introduction of intersectionality (i.e., the dynamics of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, age, religion, and nationality) in relation to crime and incarceration.
Because we have a shorter, 14-week semester, my course readings are integrated into weeks four through nine. Weeks four and five reflect the Inside-Out curriculum and I have continued to use the handbook’s guiding questions and class activities. I have added an emphasis on gender, and each of these two class sessions provides context for students who may not be familiar with the ways in which (1) our understandings of “prison” have shifted and changed over time, which then impacts the ways in which women experience incarceration, and (2) the factors that bring women to prison. M. Kay Harris underscores the importance of understanding the treatment of women in prison, which, she argues, is grounded in conceptions of gender that have resulted in notions of criminality and experiences far different from men (Harris 1998
). As Mara Dodge also explains, an analysis of the “interactions of gender, race, and class” reveals the ways in which women in the past were deemed “improper, immoral, or disreputable” in the context of prevailing norms of “respectable” womanhood (Dodge 2002, p. 4
). These topics are discussed in class and the following week we focus on the factors that bring women to prison, which again centralizes the study of gender.11
Feminist criminologist Barbara Owen identifies several gender specific pathways to prison for women, including various forms of abuse, challenging and disordered experiences at home, and disordered experiences related to street life (Owen 1998
). Lori Girshick also highlights the “disorganized” and “chaotic” dimensions that often characterize women’s lives prior to incarceration: “Low-paying jobs resulting from deficient schooling, low self-esteem from childhood abuse and lessons learned in school, drug addiction encouraged by peers, and abusive adult relationships all combined to limit life options” (Girshick 1999, p. 51
). Again, the assigned readings explore the ways in which conceptions of gender have shaped the nature and function of prisons in the United States, along with the ways in which women experience incarceration. The integration of gender decenters the more common public emphasis on the mass incarceration of men and instead shifts attention to women, who comprise the fastest-growing prison population in the United States.12
During weeks four and five, we continue to complete exercises and activities that centralize student voices and promote dialogue about the issues under discussion. For example, we begin the fifth week with the Alligator River Story, which functions as both an icebreaker and an introduction to the factors that bring women to prison. Students are presented with a short story and they must then reach consensus and rank the characters from most to least reprehensible.13
They then discuss their findings with the class and identify central themes that emerge from the story. Dominant themes typically align with theories of criminality that reveal tensions between individual choice and structural constraints, which also connects well with an exploration of gender assumptions. For instance, Abigail, one of the story’s five characters, initially refuses a riverboat captain’s proposition that she “consent to go to bed with him” if he takes her across the river to see Gregory, her lover. She later changes her mind after her friend Ivan refuses to help her. The captain then “fulfil[s] his promise to Abigail and delivers her into the arms of Gregory” but Gregory “cast[s] her aside with disdain” when he finds out about this “amorous escapade.” These story elements suggest adherence to conventional gender norms; in this case, a woman exchanges sex for a favor that will allow her to see the one she loves, yet once she allegedly participates in the act, he casts her aside. Several questions related to gender inform the discussion: To what extent is Abigail’s decision a “free choice”? To what extent is she constrained by societal gender assumptions? Was the exchange of sex for a favor her only option? To what extent are all of the characters constrained by societal gender assumptions? What are the consequences and implications? Again, these questions closely align with feminist theories and theories of criminology focused on the interconnections between individual choice and broader institutional forces. As Shoshana Pollack notes, teaching Inside-Out courses inside women’s prisons (and also exploring topics related to gender) potentially “opens up a space … in which the personal engages with the structural (Atiya et al. 2013, pp. 111–12
). This type of exercise introduces students to the feminist notion that the personal is the political.
After the Alligator River Story dialogue, we shift to the readings and students share their general thoughts and reactions, followed by passages or quotes that shed light on women’s pathways to prison. The session concludes with a 15-minute reflection on the following quote: “Crime is a problem, but it is also a symptom of a much deeper social problem, a societal dysfunction in which everyone one of us, by omission or commission, plays a part,” which again invites students to explore the connections between the personal and the structural. I then close the session by asking each student to share one word that comes to mind when they hear the word “crime”. With this broader contextual framework in place, we then transition during the next four weeks to questions focused more explicitly on communication and the role that language and images play in shaping our understanding of incarcerated women. Again, the experiential nature of the course and its emphasis on dialogue centralizes student voices, decenters authority, and provide students with a space to reflect on and direct the conversation. Moreover, all of the weekly readings feature concepts, theories, and historical context that offer a critique of broader societal norms and structural constraints. For example, who is positioned to define “criminal” behavior? How have assumptions about “criminal” behavior shifted and changed over time, especially in relation to gender assumptions? How and why did prisons originate? Who decides what the purpose of prisons will be and how have those assumptions shifted and changed over time? What is the impact on women? The work of Kenneth Burke provides a useful guide in these discussions, particularly the concept of “terministic screens,” which helps students understand the ways in which reality is a social construction.
The course content focused on communication has evolved to reflect a sharper emphasis on social construction, including the language, images, stereotypes, and more nuanced realities of incarcerated women. To this end, weeks six to nine explore questions related to these topics. The Inside-Out pedagogical format still structures each class session, including collaborative small and large group discussions, exercises, and activities. We still sit in a circle, alternating between inside and outside students, and conclude with the closing circle. Weekly questions and themes, however, reflect a more explicit disciplinary emphasis on the ways in which language and images shape our perspectives and the power of the media to direct our understanding of women in prison. One of our readings, criminologist Dawn Cecil’s “Looking Beyond Caged Heat
: Media Images of Women in Prison,” demonstrates the intersections between criminology and communication. Cecil explores representations of incarcerated women in “reality-based” programming, including “documentaries, news magazine programs, and talk shows” and argues that women in prison are portrayed through three primary frames: violence, sex, and “bad” motherhood (Cecil 2007, pp. 305, 321
). Students explore these gendered representations of women and link them to Burke’s concept of terministic screens, which holds that “[e]ven if any given terminology is a reflection
of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection
of reality; and to this extent is must function also as a deflection
of reality” (Burke 1966, p. 45
). The frames to which Cecil refers function as terministic screens or “lenses” through which we are invited to understand incarcerated women. As selections and deflections, these screens are never all-encompassing and may function to reinforce stereotypes. Because nearly 80% of women in prison are mothers and nearly 60% have children under age 18,14
we also compare the stereotypes that Cecil explores to the more nuanced experiences of mothers in prison, many of whom were primary caretakers prior to incarceration. These comparisons bring us back to the critical question of who is positioned in our society to “name” and categorize groups of people in particular ways, which entails discussions about institutional power and alternatively, the power of self-definition as a feminist form of resistance.
The power of self-definition is explored during weeks six and nine. As an example, required readings during week nine focus on the realities of formerly incarcerated women, including the challenges they face upon reentry, and the role that communication plays in these dynamics. One of our assigned articles is Tina Reynold’s “A Formerly Incarcerated Woman Takes on Policy,” which highlights the various ways in which feminist communication practices, such as sharing one’s story and self-definition, can invite connections with audiences and challenge negative, simplistic stereotypes. Reynolds explains how she recognized the power of defining herself “beyond the prison experience” and later co-founded WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling HerStory), which works to “change the public perception about ourselves, our children, and our community in order to create positive policy changes” (Reynolds 2010, pp. 455, 457
). In addition to these communicative practices, the final group of readings also features the importance of educating the public about prisons, rebuilding relationships with children and other family members, and advocating for policy changes related to housing and employment, all of which are related to the study of communication.
During weeks four to nine, students are required to write three thesis-driven analytical papers that address the overall question for the week, using relevant quotes from the assigned readings to support their claims. In addition to the readings previously noted, required books have included Jennifer Gonnerman’s Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett and Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars, along with both scholarly and mainstream articles that explore the weekly topics. These readings offer a more nuanced and complex understanding of the challenges that incarcerated women face, along with their achievements and successes, thus countering more simplistic and stereotypical portrayals of women in prison. Students also write three reflection papers throughout the semester, focusing on their observations of and reactions to class experiences and discussions. They also write a more extensive final reflection essay that is due on the last day of class.
The culminating class assignment is a group poster project designed to challenge stereotypes and reflect more accurately the experiences of women in prison. I revised the group project assignment prior to my second course offering so that it would encapsulate the communication-based focus on how language and images shape our understanding of incarceration and incarcerated women. In this way, the group project provides another example of the ways in which feminist principles have shaped my course. Students are divided into five groups comprised of two inside and two outside students. Each group is required to (1) design a poster that challenges stereotypes of women in prison and/or reflects the realities of women who serve time; (2) collaboratively write a paper that explains and justifies their poster choices and support these points with evidence from the assigned readings; and (3) present their poster to the class. Posters must feature one overall idea and include only a minimal number of words. In addition, posters must look professional; to this end, I have enlisted the assistance of a campus lab that provides guidance throughout the process. Some groups use the lab only for printing purposes, as students often have artistic ability and design the images themselves. Others create a sketch of their poster and the lab then locates the images and brings their ideas to life. Aside from these general parameters, students have creative freedom, again reflecting feminist pedagogical principles as students are positioned to draw from their experiences, situate those experiences in a broader context, and apply what they have learned throughout the course.
The group assignment, through the creation of the poster, is designed to impact audiences beyond our classroom, as posters are displayed in campus departmental offices and showcased during the University’s Social Justice Week events. What follows is a brief description of three sample posters that were featured in the Winter 2013 Inside-Out Center newsletter.15
See images in the supplementary file
“Dear Mama” highlights the number of women in prison who are mothers and encapsulates the various challenges that are part of pregnancy, parenting, and prison life, along with opportunities that are beneficial to mothers and children, such as the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program, which at one time had been offered at the prison where I facilitate the class. An outside student drew the image of the pregnant woman with shackles on her hands and the cards were drawn by the child of an inside student. The inclusion of the card allowed for “real” voices to be heard and for personal experience to be placed in a broader context.
“Truths” is designed to dismantle the “us versus them” stereotype and show that differences are minimal between the free and the incarcerated. The poster challenges the simplicity of drawing a line between “good” people on the outside and “bad” people on the inside and challenges us to think in more complex ways about labelling. The shadowed woman bridges the yin and yang and invites identification among all women.
“Television” illuminates the ways in which the media creates misrepresentations of incarcerated women, and the ways in which those words and images become harmful to those on the inside and outside. Drawn by an inside student, the faceless woman shielding herself from the press signifies the invisibility and dehumanization that the incarcerated often feel. The left side of the poster features an authority figure who is taking away the woman’s child, directing attention to the challenges that mothers face while incarcerated. While the images of people are depersonalized and gray, the faceless woman has a vibrant, red heart, which symbolizes her humanity. The flag in the background portrays the ideal of freedom, especially freedom from judgment.
Again, the culminating poster project provides an opportunity for students to reflect on and apply what they have learned throughout the semester and design a message that challenges often simplistic and potentially negative representations of women in prison. Aside from the general assignment parameters, they have creative freedom to focus on what they choose and design it the way that they deem to be most appropriate and effective. In short, students have the power to work collaboratively as equals and “claim” their education.16
The final combined session, which features the closing ceremony, is held during the second-to-last week of the semester and is one of the most powerful yet challenging class meetings. As Pompa states, the closing ceremony includes “administrators from the school and the correctional facility, to mark the achievements of the class” (Pompa 2013, p. 15
). Melissa Crabbe further explains these dynamics: “inside and outside students speaking movingly (without being coached!) about the power of the community they have experienced in the classroom, their sense of connection to each other, and their gratitude toward the administrators who make the experience possible (Crabbe 2013, p. 32
). The structure of this final, combined session is two-fold.17
The formal closing ceremony is held during the first hour of class and the program features the instructor’s welcome and introduction, a speech presented by an inside student (chosen by the outside students) and a speech presented by an outside student (chosen by the inside students). The Director of Education also speaks, and I typically schedule remarks from our College Dean and the Social Justice Program Director and/or the Women’s and Gender Studies Director. Each speaker is limited to three minutes, regardless of rank or position (again, fostering equality) and we then present certificates to each student in the course, followed by refreshments. Students display their posters at the event and those in attendance have time to talk with them about their creative work.
The second part of the class session is focused on our private closing exercise, without guests. Prior to this class, students submit a paragraph that addresses what the course has meant to them and the impact it has had on their lives. I compile their responses and present each student with the booklet. A student designs the cover and I also include small versions of the five posters created by the groups. After students have had the opportunity to read through the booklet, we shift to the most challenging part of the course: saying goodbye. The week before, students have been asked to think about how to process the end of the course and I ask them to talk about what each of us can do to help ourselves say goodbye to the group. We follow with a discussion about the group project and the impact it could potentially have in the future. Students share their responses and I then ask the final wrap-up question: what will you take from this experience into your life? Pompa underscores the power of the final combined class session: “At closing ceremonies, so moving and significant, there is quite a bit of mourning that happens, but it is mourning for more than just the relationships; it’s for the loss of the liberating space itself” (Pompa 2013, p. 205
). The final combined class session is always bittersweet, as students have learned together as peers and found that regardless of their backgrounds and experiences, they were able to foster connections and treat each other with dignity. “In a most unlikely setting,” Pompa explains, “Inside-Out provides a space of liberation, a place where each person is recognized and celebrated for the unique contribution that he or she brings to the whole… In this shared space, we can be who we are, say what we know, and call forth the best in one another” (Pompa 2013, p. 275
During the final week, each group of students meets separately and processes the entire experience. At the end of each semester, many inside and outside students note, in their final reflection papers and during our final discussion and dialogue, the positive impact of the course on their lives. Their words speak to the power of human dignity and the power of fostering connections and communication between groups of people who might otherwise never encounter each other. Their words also speak to the power of Freire’s inspiration and the feminist ideals that shape the course.