Note: Helena is a student at Chemeketa Community College, and took her Inside-Out class winter term of 2011. The following piece was written as a reflection, and is published here with her permission.
Walking from my car to the entrance, I am overwhelmed by the cold, grey, formidable walls with their guard towers, assuming I am also being watched as I approach. Not knowing what to expect or how to prepare myself for the events to come, I give in and go with the flow. It's a mental battle. One that is hidden from sight. In the lobby I go through security, feeling as though I am the one in question. My buttons beep as I go through the metal detector, then my necklace beeps, one more time and I will not be allowed to enter, so the sign says. Finally stripped of all things that beep, including my shoes, I pass through the metal detector one last time....it doesn't beep, and I am allowed to enter. Standing in the first corridor before I exchange my driver's license for their red badge of a volunteer, I can faintly hear voices in the distance, distorted by the acoustics that displace sounds into unintelligible noise. Driver's license traded, I am allowed through the second gate, staying to the right of the hall as instructed to do. Waiting to be buzzed through the third gate, I am assaulted by a smell that at first is repulsive and foreign, almost a musk of sorts. Getting clearance from the guard I pass through the fourth gate into an open area, littered with men in navy t-shirts and blue denim jeans. Their uniform, the dress code of an inmate. The guards are also present in this open area, which offers little security to me, as they are obviously outnumbered. Climbing the stairs to the fourth floor, I am plagued by memories of movies I had seen, picturing the worst as I round each corner only to climb another flight of stairs uneventfully. Reaching the fourth floor, I am escorted with my group down a hall past a few rooms that appear to be classrooms, then a bigger room that is used as the chapel. The last room I enter turns out to be a library, as well as our classroom for the next 11 weeks. The chairs are arranged in a huge circle. There are no tables, just the circle of chairs. We are instructed to sit every other chair as the rest will be filled with our other classmates. My nerves are reaching a crescendo of sorts, heart beat is rapid and showing no signs of slowing. One, two, three, four...the room is filling up with our arriving classmates. The chairs are also filling, one classmate on each side of me. I feel my face flush as I muster friendly smiles to ward off my true feelings of nervous anxiety. Who are the new students? How can I really be here? What will happen? The chairs fill, the air is thick with anticipation mixed with uncertainty. I look around the room to see that our arriving classmates are....nervous, too? It can't be. Eyes dart to and fro, not lingering on each person met with a gaze, everyone seems to be taking in the situation. We are then instructed to form an inner circle of chairs facing the chairs we currently are occupying, this is called the "Wagon Wheel" exercise. The students in their blue and denim uniforms fill the inner circle. Knees almost touching, gazes more direct, nerves peaking...this is almost all I can take, before showing obvious signs of my anxiety. What follows is to become the ice-breaker. The inner circle rotates to their right every 3 minutes, in order for everyone to answer a scripted question, to get the communication flowing. At first it was uncomfortable and guarded, as the time went on, the conversations in the room grew louder and louder, I, too, felt more relaxed, almost falling into myself as each new student seated in front of me switched to a new face, only to switch again. That wasn't so bad. Was I expecting monsters? Maybe brutal caveman with limited vocabulary? I'm not really sure what I initially expected. All I know is that when the first words were spoken, I realized that these students were human just like me. They had feelings, emotions, hopes, dreams, families, and humor. From that moment on, it was clear that we were all students. After the first night I left feeling exhausted. On the ride home with two close friends that I happen to car-pool with, we were each telling our feelings about this new and unusual class set up, called the Inside Out Prison Exchange. I, and my friends, composed the Outside student group, and the men in blue were the Inside students. I knew that night after leaving, digesting the events, and then looking forward to the following week, that something big was going to happen.
As the weeks flew by, and they sure did, I found myself dreading the end. Never had I felt so welcomed, appreciated, or involved with classmates in my educational career though Chemeketa Community College, and I was two terms away from leaving Chemeketa on a transfer to Eastern Oregon University. So during my two and a half years as a student, I had never come across the collective energy, magic, or hope that I had encountered while taking SP100 at Oregon State Penitentiary. The level of respect that was constantly shown was admirable, making each class a pleasure to attend. Looking at my syllabus and noting that there were only 3 weeks left until our final presentation as well as our final meeting in the little library that became our unconventional classroom, I felt the sadness. One of the stipulations for being a participant in the Inside Out Prison Exchange is the rule of "no contact." This means no contact whatsoever after classes have commenced. At first it seemed appropriate, after all half of the class were inmates for a crime serious enough for them to be housed at Oregon's only Maximum Security Prison. Knowing then that these faces that blended from unknown into classmates with warm smiles and bright eyes, were only temporary, made my heart ache. These people had earned the privilege of being students, they had overcome daily prison drama in order to keep their heads on straight which afforded them the opportunity to better themselves through education. I admired this, and still do.
The last night of our class was an event in itself. There were dignitaries from the Department of Corrections, as well as the higher ups from Chemeketa Community College, as this was Chemeketa's first class associated with the Inside Out Prison Exchange program. The hope was to show how beneficial the program is and to encourage more involvement in our community. Education is a tool that has been a proven to reduce recidivism. Not only reducing recidivism, but instilling hope, building confidence as the learning process provides encouragement and guidance to these otherwise lost souls who are locked away from society and forgotten. The level of intelligence shown through their vocabulary as well as mannerisms, defied anything I had previously expected from the Inside classmates. What happened in our little classroom over the course of 11 weeks can only be described as magical and enlightening.
Watching the last Inside classmate leave the room, turning to wave for the last time, I felt my heart sink. The room was now empty, the voices were moving further and further away, even with the deceptive qualities of the acoustics, I knew they were gone. It seemed bitter and unfair that these people who were so influential and encouraging were to be locked away and out of contact from the rest of us from this point on. The drive home was filled with memories of the 11 weeks in class. Then the irony hit me. I would miss these guys and the interaction with them each week. Monday nights would be forever changed.
This experience helped me jump ship from my prior desire to become a nurse, out of my overwhelming need to help people. Now I am pursuing my Master's Degree in Sociology and Anthropology, one day hoping to have my own class in the Inside Out Prison Exchange program. The tenacity and drive of the Inside students was contagious. I had never witnessed a classroom filled with people who WANT to be there, while striving to do their very best. This has become my calling. I am forever changed from the inside out.