I’ve often struggled to explain the effect that the Inside Out class I took last term has had on me. It’s easy to tell people that it was the best class I’ve taken in college, or that it was a life changing experience. Although those statements are true, the clichés don’t really capture the most important parts of what I experienced inside the walls of Oregon State Penitentiary. The beauty of Inside Out is that from the very start you are forced, rather than encouraged, to make strong personal connections with all of your classmates. The first day all of the outside students sat approximately 18 inches across from a series of 13 maximum security prison inmates and answered a set of questions that ranged from goofy to deeply personal. This is not an experience that most people can claim they have had. Since that first day I have found myself acutely aware of eye contact; looking into someone’s eyes as I listen and speak to them has become increasingly important to me. Inspired by our first wagon wheel, I strive to make my everyday conversations more real, often by channeling the strong gazes of those inside students whom I met on my first day.
Having such limited class time (only 24 hours in total) I found that each conversation, whether casual or a formal group discussion, suddenly became much more important. I have never felt so engaged with such a large group of people. Our prison classroom was an incredibly safe and open environment, something that is inherently at odds with the whole idea of what a prison is. In my opinion that is the greatest strength of the Inside Out program: it deconstructs preconceived notions about what all of your classmates will be like and allows a space in which all students can act as equals, learning from each other as well as the instructors.
I was lucky to be part of a group of outside students that was enthusiastic about spending time together outside of the program. Most of us wished weekly that we could lengthen the two one-hour van rides, even the 15 minutes spent going through security, but most importantly, by spending more time with our fellow outside students we hoped to make the 3 hours we spent with our entire class last a little longer. If nowhere else, in conversations with each other, and in the memories we will take with us. I will continue to try to make those nine weeks live on through contact with my fellow outside alumni, re-reading my anthology (currently one of my most prized possessions), and continuing to grapple with the things I learned about making personal connections before judgments, the importance of cherishing the time you have with people, and our incredibly ineffective prison system. I have truly come out of my Inside Out experience a different person, and I don’t think I could ever thank all of my fellow classmates, both inside and outside, as well as my instructors, enough for that.
UO Inside-Out Alumna