The Impact of 10 Weeks

Last term I had the pleasure and opportunity to TA an Inside-Out class for Professor Anita Chari. The topic was Autobiography as Political Agency and, as I should have expected, the students - inside and out - blew me away. I am grateful for their willingness to share their stories and their thoughts with me throughout the quarter and I am glad to be able to share two speeches by outside students that were given during our closing ceremony. Although it is hard to summarize or reduce the experience of an Inside-Out course, I hope the words of these students help to describe the temporary community created by each course and the impact this has on each participant. Winter 2015

First of all, I wanted to start off by saying this is the best class I’ve ever taken. I’m going to remember each and every one of you and all the conversations we had, and I wanted to thank all of you for being a part of this amazing experience. I have never taken a class before that I am so passionate about and excited to attend. A lot of times in college we take classes we don’t genuinely care about, but this class is the polar opposite. This is the only class I’ve ever taken where 3 hours feels like 5 minutes; I’m pretty sure the clocks are broken in here because time moves so quickly.

On that note, I wanted to share with you guys why this class was so important to me. I know a few of the people in the class know this, but a majority of the class is unaware that my dad is in prison. He’s been there since I was in 8th grade. I was waiting for the right time to share this with everyone, and I felt discussing what this class means to me is the perfect opportunity. Originally, I was interested in the idea of an Inside-Out class because of my dad; over the past several years, I’ve really struggled with our relationship. When I saw that the inside out class offered winter term was about autobiography as political agency, I knew this was the perfect fit for me. At first, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of how this class would affect me. After taking it, though, I can easily say it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Through our writings and interactions, I’ve learned so much about parts of myself that I never even knew existed. I know many of the inside students have children themselves - in talking with you guys about your children and hearing how much you care about them, I realized that even though I might not always agree with my dad's actions, he’s always going to be my father and he’s always going to love me no matter what. I cannot thank everyone in this class enough for allowing me to grow in ways I never thought possible through the unique community an Inside-Out class builds.

Along with these realizations, I discovered that being involved in our justice system is something I want to continue doing for the rest of my life. While I was always interested in our political and justice system before, after taking this class I realized how passionate I truly am about advocating for change. When most people think of prisons, they don’t consider the implications and consequences of what it truly means to put someone behind bars. I want to change the stigma of what it means to be a “prisoner” and how people are treated once they are convicted of a crime. Although I may not have all the answers right now, I know I want to implement change in the best way possible, and I’m determined to figure out my place in changing our current system for the better. So I hope this isn’t goodbye, and that you all still hear from me in the future. Again, thank you all so much for giving me this amazing opportunity.

Along with these realizations, I discovered that being involved in our justice system is something I want to continue doing for the rest of my life. While I was always interested in our political and justice system before, after taking this class I realized how passionate I truly am about advocating for change. When most people think of prisons, they don’t consider the implications and consequences of what it truly means to put someone behind bars. I want to change the stigma of what it means to be a “prisoner” and how people are treated once they are convicted of a crime. Although I may not have all the answers right now, I know I want to implement change in the best way possible, and I’m determined to figure out my place in changing our current system for the better. So I hope this isn’t goodbye, and that you all still hear from me in the future. Again, thank you all so much for giving me this amazing opportunity.

 - Emily

Hello everyone! I feel incredibly honored to have the opportunity to speak for a moment. My name is Gabe and I go to the University of Oregon. I signed up for this class after a friend of mine recommended that I apply; on a whim (last minute really) I turned my application in. The days before the information session, I can’t say that I was actually too excited to take this course. I still have a lot of general education requirements, I was going through a major crisis, and I’m a generally incredibly busy person. After the information session though, I knew I had to take this course. Mainly, I wanted to take this class because of the personal awareness. A lot of times in the traditional education system, students are not really asked to think critically about positionality and personal experience. This is exactly what this course worked for students to do, which made me incredibly nervous and excited. Throughout this class experience, I have never truly realized how powerful experience is, and how it changes in the structures of our society. The material in this class was beautiful. Assata’s strength, Malcolm X’ wit, Kelley’s

Mainly, I wanted to take this class because of the personal awareness. A lot of times in the traditional education system, students are not really asked to think critically about positionality and personal experience. This is exactly what this course worked for students to do, which made me incredibly nervous and excited. Throughout this class experience, I have never truly realized how powerful experience is, and how it changes in the structures of our society. The material in this class was beautiful. Assata’s strength, Malcolm X’ wit, Kelley’s critique-all of these readings were truly transformative, but some of the most impactful moments in the class was what you all did with the material. I am in the presence of some truly powerful classmates, all with unique stories and backgrounds.

I heard a story just this weekend and it really reminds me of our class. Scientists were studying a habitat in a cold climate and found an unusual group of porcupines located in this area. During the winter time when the climate became harsh, scientists observed that the porcupines would travel in incredibly close-knit packs for everything from eating to sleeping. These porcupines could never get too close due to their large quills; if they did, they would stab each other. They would maintain a distance that was not too close but just close enough to huddle for warmth. This act of the porcupines, for me, is very symbolic of our class community. The quills represent our differences- our different walks of life, different backgrounds and different identities. The warmth represents survival and comfort and working with our differences to create something special and something common for all of us.

This class has made me more aware of my quills and more accepting of that warmth. By mere default of being born and developing our own individuality, our existence is resistance. To ignore systems such as white supremacy, institutionalized racism, homophobia, colonialism and other systems (at least to me) will never provide justice and collective liberation for all. I believe that we can truly never have equality unless we learn to appreciate people for their differences before we share the commonality of being human. With that said, being more aware of who you are for yourself and in relation to the world and these systems creates conscious understanding. Lilla Watson once said “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” As abstract as I’m being right now (to the point where I’m almost losing myself), I think that it is important to remember: Keep the warmth we created in this class community with you. I know that it will keep me strong.

It honestly saddens me more than ever that for most of you all, I will not see you on a weekly basis anymore, but if physically I cannot be with you all and you all can't be with me, than at least in spirit and solidarity I keep you all in my hearts. This class has inspired me to be more aware of the quills I and others have as well as the potential warmth we can create if we know our own stories and backgrounds and how that works with others around us.

If I cry today, don’t be alarmed, I’ve never cared much for a masculine exterior anyways. In Sterling’s words, they are tears of protest and tears of compassion in this bittersweet moment. Thank you Professor Chari for your wisdom, thank you OSP for allowing the space and thank you classmates for the world and understanding. You are all beautiful inside and out. Thank you.

- Gabe

Inside-Out Alumni on Concertina Wire

Jordan, Althea, and Emory discuss rethinking paradigms, restorative justice, and their Inside-Out classes on Concertina Wire. [audio]

Concertina Wire is broadcast weekly on KWVA 88.1 FM.

Inside-Out T-Shirt Giveaway Contest

COMPETITION EXTENDED UNTIL SEPTEMBER 1, 12AM PST. Write about your Inside-Out experience AND have the chance to win an AWESOME t-shirt from the (Inter)National Inside-Out Center, courtesy of Oregon Inside-Out intern Jordan W. Here's Jordan's challenge:

Find a piece of art that best summarizes your Inside-Out experience, whether it is Raphael's Sistine Madonna, the graffiti art of Banksy or JR, or that song you listened to every week on the way to and from prison. Submit a statement of 300 words or less to describe why that art was so important to your experience. Be creative!

Have you created art inspired by your Inside-Out experience? Did you make a painting, compose a song, write a creative essay, story, poem, or anything else that can be considered "art" (however you want to define that)? Send it in with an short statement (200 words or less) describing why you made that art, what significance it has for you, and/or what you hope others get from it.

Submit your entries as comments to this post, or email them to by SUNDAY, Sept. 1 at midnight PST. The blog team will select a winning entry (maybe more than one) and we'll mail or hand deliver you a t-shirt (and you'll get major kudos on this blog). Entry is limited to students and instructors who took classes/taught in Oregon.


Three Hours a Week, for Ten Weeks

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

Newspaper Tables

Last Thursday, I was one night away from turning in the defense draft of my senior thesis. Needless to say, I was not in attendance at our regular Thursday night book club planning meeting. During the drive to the Serbu Center, I was briefed on my role for the day’s session: to lead a small group discussion about how to build a table out of newspaper. I would distribute half-sheets of paper that each contained a few quotes from a relatively complicated article on the utility of the triangle in building prisms, then I would encourage the groups to think about the use of bracing in their table designs. Each group would chat about their experiences with tables, and then start to think through elements of design.

This session fit into our larger goal for the term: to think about the role of education in our lives, and to consider ways to improve our classrooms and schools. During this session, we attempted to meet a single objective (an understanding of how to build a table that would withstand books using only newspaper and tape) using three teaching techniques: lecture, small group discussion, and hands-on experimentation. We talked about the pros and cons of each as we went, and we tried to draw out each person’s reaction to different teaching styles.

Going into the session, we (the outside students) were not sure how the session would go. There were only three of us, instead of our normal eight, because most people were at the Dalai Lama’s lecture on campus. We all agreed it was a creative lesson plan, but it was also one that would either flop or fly, and we didn't know which.

As soon as we brought out the newspaper, however, I knew it would be a success. The first two segments (lecture and discussion) were pretty dry, although some of the youth were already clearly invested in drawing table designs and discussing what would make their tables withstand the most weight. For the last segment, each group got a pile of newspaper and four long pieces of duct-tape, and within minutes, UO students, youth, and the classroom teacher were down on the floor rolling, folding, ripping, and taping.

I heard conversations about bracing, and angles, and material density. Every single person in the room was on their hands and knees, and for almost the entire time, everyone was fully engaged in the activity. I was surprised to see that within twenty minutes, every group had managed to make a table that withstood at least one fat literature textbook and some withstood at least four (I’d guess around 15 pounds).   Even though we ran out of time to have a full conversation about what teaching style worked the best for them, it was clear to all of us that working with materials, experimenting, and moving around caught everyone’s attention.


Inside-Out UO Alumna


Things That Matter

Last term changed my life. I participated in UO's "Inside-Out" program in which UO students take a class along inmates (also students) in Oregon prisons. My class took place at Oregon State Penitentiary, the only maximum security prison in the state. I'd never been in a prison before. What I found in my inside and outside classmates was companionship unlike anything I could have expected. Our relationships grew based on genuine openness and discussion, and through a fascinating sociology curriculum. The only problem is, the class ended. I'm on the outside, and half of my friends from class are on the inside, which will never feel right.

Leaving class I felt "helpless and hopeless." But in the last month I have been able to live more actively and happily despite being hit by occasional sadness thinking about all that's wrong with our world. Never in my life have I been more grateful and, as cheesy as it sounds, the important things in life are as clear to me as ever!

The following are a few simple but important practices that matter.

Honesty. Seems like a no brainer. But being sincere and open particularly about how I feel, as well as hearing the stories of others has made a big difference in my life. I'm currently taking part in a few discussion groups in order to stay tapped into honest conversation. I'm certainly no professional, and it's hard. I have to remind myself that talking isn't always communication.

Being outside. Last week on a run on the coast I was overwhelmed with the memories of the men inside. I tried to capture every glimpse of forest and sea and appreciate it. Since the start of the class, running has been therapy. But we all have our outdoor niche. Lately I've realized how wonderful life is when one day you're trekking through tidepools and the next you're digging in the garden. Whatever gets me outside, I'll do it.

Doing work that's fulfilling. For me, right now, it's learning and working on the coast at Oregon Institute of Marine Biology and educating myself on food issues and gardening at the Urban Farm. The former simply makes me feel happy and excites me. The latter lets me get my hands dirty, contribute to my community, and challenge current ideologies and practices. As I apply for jobs in the "real world" I look for a combination of these characteristics.

I'm so in love with the people in my life, and the places I get to spend my time.

But still, sometimes I feel so devastated. All I can do is honor my friends inside with every person I hug, hill I run, shovel full I dig, and story I share.

-Shannon R.

Outside Alumna, UO

Education Changing Lives

This little article says what every Inside-Out student knows without seeing statistics: education can change lives, inside and out. As we begin a new term here at the UO, I am reminded of how grateful I am to have the opportunity to attain a university education (especially at a school that has programs like Inside-Out). It’s time to see more movement for education inside our nation’s prisons, too.

Before spring break, Colette Peters, the head of Oregon's Department of Corrections came to the University of Oregon to give a talk focusing on education  (and she also gave an overview of Oregon's DOC) as part of the recent Prisons, Compassion, and Peace Conference. She said (and I hope I've got this right ) that while the recidivism rate is around 30% in Oregon, that number reduces to 14% for inmates with an associate's degree, 6% for inmates who attain a bachelor's degree, and 0% for inmates who earn a master's degree or higher.

While the Inside-Out experience is, and should be, measured qualitatively rather than quantitatively, these numbers still speak volumes about the power of education in general, and of course, the importance of programs such as Inside-Out. These numbers echo what many inside classmates have told me: that education gave them a new lens through which to view the world. This, of course, is true for both inside and outside students and is exactly the reason we need to see more educational opportunities for students on both sides of the prison walls.


UO Inside-Out Alumna

Every Night A World Created

With finals winding up/down here at the UO, I hope to have some posts about exciting things going on here and across the state in the next few weeks. In the meantime, Inside-Out classes from the UO had their closing ceremonies last week (more on that soon as well), and I thought I'd share the letter I wrote to the class I   TA'd for, an honors college class called "Culture Wars in America". Here it is:

"In The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck writes of the community formed among migrant people on the road, people with a common dream and circumstance but divergent histories, families, and to varying degrees, cultures. He says: “The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”

He’s writing of solidarity among people not for personal gain, but for the sake of connection, generosity of spirit, and interaction. “Every night a world created.” In many ways, I think his words speak to our experience in class. Every Monday night, we create a world in which we can share our experiences despite sometimes diverging beliefs. Our time together is enriched rather than limited by our range of cultures, histories, and identities. I have seen everyone in this room enter with a spirit of generosity, willing to listen and consider what other folks have to say. And I have watched everyone take pleasure in simple human interaction—seeking out commonalities rather than fixating on divisions.

As we have explored the topic of culture wars, we have seen the complex interplay between identity, labels, stereotypes, personal experience, and ideas of self, community, region, and nation. Both John Steinbeck and Junot Díaz tell us that culture wars are not easy to navigate, and they don’t offer us worlds of peace, equality, and unity. Instead, both authors expose the rawness of the human experience—the pain along with the joy, the suffering, the division, but also the human capacity for compassion, connection, and hope.

For me, Inside-Out operates in a similar way. This class has exposed the tensions that can divide people. We have spoken about our fiercely-held beliefs and seen some stark divides. Yet, when “the night draws down” this class has been more about what we have in common then what keeps us apart. I feel lucky to have formed bonds of friendship in this class, and to have witnessed similar bonds in formation.

Steinbeck points out that this transition from “I” to “we” is  “the thing to bomb”. And he’s right that it’s powerful. When we remove ideas of “us” and “them” we create a powerful unity. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we respect and recognize the dignity in each other. The community that we’ve created, bridging divides of all sorts and at least one tangible wall, is a powerful testament to the human ability to form friendships and break down limiting stereotypes when we create a space for dialogue and interaction. When we came together face to face, despite bringing along our histories and our cultures and our biases, seeing each other as humans and as friends was remarkably easy.

I have been honored to have met each of you, and to be a part of this community. I will carry our interactions and my memories of our conversations with me, and I hope that each of you will do the same."


Inside-Out Alumna, UO


For Your Viewing Pleasure

Last week, the UO Prison Justice Working Group; the Cultural Forum; and UO Students for a Sensible Drug Policy put on a two-day film series entitled Smoke Signals: Perspectives on Mass Incarceration. They showed four films, all of which are worth watching if you are interested in learning more about current issues in incarceration, drug policy, and the judicial system. They are:

  • The House I Live In
  • Broken on All Sides
  • In Prison My Whole Life
  • Shakespeare Behind Bars

Earlier in the term, the UO Inside-Out Alumni Group also watched Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary film about a theater program inside a penitentiary. If you haven’t already seen this film, it’s a thought-provoking piece and an interesting program to compare and contrast with the Inside-Out model. Well worth a watch for Inside-Out alumni.

If you’re interested in learning more, go to

On another note, the Eugene Opera is premiering the opera version of Sister Helen Prejean’s acclaimed book Dead Man Walking. There are showings of the opera at the Hult Performing Arts Center in Eugene on Friday, March 15 and Sunday, March 17. Get tickets soon if you’re interested in seeing the show:

***The Inside-Out Program encourages continued education for its alumni, but does not endorse any particular political messages. The opinions of individuals interviewed in these films are completely their own.

"Prejean Papers" Donated to DePaul University

Sister Helen Prejean, for those who don’t know, is the leading advocate against the death penalty and the author of the book-turned-movie Dead Man Walking. She has spent the last three decades acting as spiritual advisor to death row inmates, as well as traveling around the U.S. and the world speaking about her experiences. Sister Helen recently donated her vast collection of letters, newspaper clippings, and legal documents to DePaul University in Chicago, IL. The collection includes correspondence between Sister Helen and death row inmates Elmo “Pat” Sonnier, Robert Lee Willie, and Dobie Gillis Williams. There are also many letters of support for Sister Helen, and just as many in opposition. Other highlights include Tim Robbins’ original screenplay along with Sister Helen’s handwritten notes, and props from the movie including Sean Penn’s boots and belt. A guide to the entire collection can be found with the link below, simply scroll down to “Prejean Papers.” <> This is a permanent collection, so if you ever get the opportunity to visit Chicago you should absolutely plan to spend a couple days in the DePaul library.

When you arrive, ask for Helen at the Special Collections’ desk. Coincidentally, Helen is also the name of the librarian who organized and archived the collection. She is intimately familiarly with its contents and will be delighted to share her favorite items with you. One of my personal favorites is a framed illustration of Sister Helen from the Chicago Committee to the Bill of Rights. This drawing in its frame is exactly the same size and shape as the window from Dobie Williams’ trial, which he supposedly climbed through. After reading about Dobie’s case in Sister Helen’s book, The Death of Innocents, I was both amazed and horrified when I actually held that small, narrow frame in my hands. Another poignant moment in my exploration of the “Prejean Papers” was my discovery of Robert Lee Willie’s personal dictionary and hat. I couldn’t believe that I was actually holding a piece of this man’s life in my hands.

Whether you have eagerly devoured the books Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, had the incredible experience of meeting Sister Helen Prejean herself, or simply share her abhorrence of the death penalty, this collection will certainly move you.

- Sophie T., UO Inside-Out Alumna

Martin Luther King Behind Bars

On Martin Luther King Day, one of the few holidays recognized with a day off at the University of Oregon, I was honored to spend the evening at Oregon State Penitentiary with an Inside-Out class. It seemed fitting to spend the day honoring the life and work of one of America’s greatest civil rights advocates talking with students from UO and OSP about issues of race, inequality, and change. There is more to it than that, however. It you asked Michelle Alexander (see earlier post), she would tell you that mass incarceration is the latest iteration of racist American social and legal policy. Honoring Martin Luther King’s legacy is important--the work that he and his fellow civil rights activists did to transform the American racial landscape is remarkable, to say the least. Nonetheless, spending time in a prison is a clear reminder that racism still exists. As the inside students articulated, racism manifests on the yard, in relation to gangs, and in the chow hall. It is also evident in the disproportionately high numbers of minorities incarcerated in the United States. Martin Luther King Day, in that context, serves as both an acknowledgement of real changes in the past fifty years, and a reminder of the portions of Martin Luther King’s mission that remain incomplete.

The day was significant for another reason as well. Not only a day honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, January 21 was the day that our nation’s first black president was publicly inaugurated for the second time. As a class, we talked through the significance of the day, both in terms of what Obama said (and didn’t say) but also with regards to the significance of his very presence at the podium.

Towards the end of the class, recognizing both the enormous achievements of the past fifty years as well as the continued prevalence of inequality (racial, but also much more than that), we listened to a King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. His words, poignant in 1967 I’m sure, continue to hold weight today. He said, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” A speech filled with powerful and poetic prose, this statement struck me all the more as I was sitting in our small classroom on the education floor of OSP. King’s words about structures of inequality ring true in the face of continued discrimination and poverty. However, he also offers powerful words of advice: compassion, when it is neither haphazard nor superficial, has the real potential to be a revolutionary force. It’s not entirely clear to me what this looks like in concrete terms on a societal level, but I think his words remain a compass for informing our mindsets and our decisions.


Inside-Out Alumna





Making Connections, Moving Forward

I recently traveled from the University of Oregon to the East Coast to meet with Inside-Out professors, alumni, and think tanks in an effort to build relationships between think tanks and to construct an international alumni infrastructure. In Morgantown, West Virginia, I met Jeri, Delia, and the think tank at Hazelton Federal Penitentiary; I met Barbara in Baltimore to discuss creative writing and Inside-Out; and I met I-O alumni, staff, and the Graterford Think Tank in Philadelphia.

While visiting the I-O Center at Temple, I went to the Youth Study Center (YSC), “the only secure youth detention facility in Philadelphia.” The YSC was located in the heart of North Philadelphia amidst neighborhoods of unfettered poverty. Originally a mental hospital, the building has been transformed into a 105 bed facility “for court-ordered juveniles between the ages of 13-18, who are alleged to have committed a felony type offense and are deemed by the court to be a serious risk to the safety of the community.” I had never seen anything like it.

There is a methodical structure and logic to prisons that help to compartmentalize the shock of walking through their hallways.  This was not so for the YSC. The edifice clearly demonstrated that there was no justified reason for how those kids were housed, for the decrepit neighborhoods of North Philly, for the deaths and imprisonment that those kids talked about with such nonchalance, for their preparedness and even excitement for prison, or for any of the destructive realities represented by incarcerating kids.

The YSC is a checkpoint between birth and prison. Inside-Out and think tanks are working to expand carceral education and establish prison to university pathways, yet the reality of the YSC and the 5,000 youth housed each year demonstrates the need to bring education into communities before their children are shipped away. I-O works in prisons, but the problems begin well before incarceration. As we develop the alumni infrastructure, I believe we should take heed of the YSC, of the imperative to disrupt the cradle to prison pipeline by utilizing alumni organization to work with at-risk and incarcerated youth.

-Jordan W.

UO Inside-Out Alumnus

Incarceration and Justice

It's hard to ignore the razor wire, even after three months. Every day walking into the prison was a reminder that these men, despite everything genuine and positive about them, are being warehoused in a giant box, rotting away from society. It's not that prisons aren't necessary. After Inside-Out, I am almost reinforced in the idea that a justice system needs a form of punishment to back the rule of law. But this system lacks empathy. It lacks understanding. Or maybe it recognizes both of these important human traits and seeks to exploit human failure and capitalize on human suffering. Either way, we have reached a point in our society where the ideas we have about prisons and justice are so far removed from the reality that we have allowed this grotesque beast to propagate amongst us. During this class, I met some of the most talented individuals I will ever again encounter. Most of the men in the class were very straightforward and admitted their mistakes against society. Many took prison to be a turnaround point in their lives. Many had aspiring goals in society upon release. Those were the success stories. The smart people who had bad luck for a while and made mistakes but have used the system to make amends. But for each of these men, there are failures. There are even smart, talented young men in the program that would be considered failures to the system. The Department of Justice admits that 70% of all convicted citizens will re-offend and serve time upon release. If the goal of the prison system is to turn criminals into productive members of society, then the failures vastly outweigh the successes.

Maybe I just don't understand people like I thought I did, but when I meet a young man who is a product of the system, who has served time, re-offended, and served again, I have to believe that this system failed him, not the other way around. A young man kicked out of foster care at 18, with no education, had the only means of income available to someone in that situation: selling cannabis. After serving time, with no additional education, no additional work skills, no support from the system that denied him everything as a child; he did it again.

So there are some glaring issues with the concept that prison is just for punishment. Are we so archaic in society that we believe there is no means of changing someone we brand a 'criminal'? Would anyone turn down any opportunity to provide food and shelter to their family? If we cannot accept that there are structural boundaries and institutional problems putting a majority of the people in prison, then nothing will ever change.

It's not even that government prisons have to fundamentally change. In many prisons there are educational programs to help incarcerated citizens change their lives. But when a child cannot get a quality education, they are not given many choices on avoiding prison. When cannabis laws target primarily low-income minorities, putting them in prison does not make their lives better: it makes getting a job near impossible, it makes government housing impossible. It makes welfare impossible. Yet, these drug offenders are not given rehabilitation facilities; more often than not, drug availability in prison is better than on the street. I have yet be in a prison where an inmate said it was harder to get narcotics than on the outside.

Through learning with incarcerated students, Inside-Out brought my attention to some of the problems with our current prison system. I believe that it is a great way for someone who has never faced incarceration or the wrong side of the law to see how complicity in this system is robbing us all of our humanity. Not speaking out against private prisons, unjust laws, and lack of quality education means that at any second, the tables could turn and we could be the one behind bars. It is not hard to fall from grace, and in America, you do not often get up after that fall. For so many of our own citizens, lack of education and employment push them to do things we would all do ourselves if necessary. For so many of our citizens, we turn our backs on them.

-Ben H.

Lewis and Clark College Outside Alumnus

The Season of Giving, Part 2

Hi Oregon alumni,

First of all, I want to offer a HUGE thank you to alumni and families who have generously donated to the Inside-Out Center as we work to raise $25,000 (in order to receive a $25,000 matching donation) to keep the center afloat. Your generosity  goes a long way to ensuring that Inside-Out continues to grow and thrive. Participation from Oregon alumni in this national endeavor is particularly vital because we are one of the national leaders in Inside-Out in terms of numbers of students who have gone through the program and alumni involvement. So, thank you, thank you, thank you!

Secondly, I wanted to update everyone on where we stand currently. As of yesterday, the Inside-Out Center has raised only $10,000 of the $25,000 it needs to raise by January 1, 2013 in order to receive an anonymous matching donation of $25,000. While the I-O center is humbled and deeply grateful for the donations we have received so far, there is obviously still a long way to go. 

This money will be used for the the operations of the Inside-Out Center in Philadelphia (headquartered at Temple University, where Inside-Out began) which currently only has enough funding to last for the next few months.

I encourage you to donate if you can, and/or to encourage family or friends to give to Inside-Out this holiday season. You can donate online by going here:

Wishing all I-O alumni (Inside and Out!) a healthy and happy new year!



Inside-Out Alumna, UO



The Season of Giving

Those of us who have had the opportunity to participate in an Inside-Out class don’t need to be told why the program is valuable. The experience has played a role in transforming how we think and interact with the world, whether that means redirecting the occasional train of thought or inspiring grand ambitions to change our country’s justice system. Unsurprisingly, a growing number of educators and students across the world are eager to participate in such a program. The season of giving is upon us, and Inside-Out needs our generosity. As the program continues to expand, nationally and internationally, our parent organization simply does not have the resources to keep up. Without significant financial help in the near future, Inside-Out will need to cut back. The Inside-Out Center currently has only enough resources to continue operating for the next couple of months. This center runs the national organization, trains new instructors, and supports Inside-Out programs across the country.  Right now, Inside-Out has a $25,000 matching grant, but it is nowhere near reaching that goal. Even small donations will help push toward the financial sustainability of the program.

There are many ways you can help. Consider asking a friend or family member to donate to Inside-Out on your behalf in lieu of even just one holiday present. Or, donate in the name of a loved one as your gift to them. At a time of year when we emphasize love, generosity, and gratitude, you can use this as an opportunity to share the impact that Inside-Out has had on you.

Wishing you peace this holiday season,

Mika W

Inside Out Alumna, UO

To make an online donation, follow this link:

**Note that the donation page is through Temple University, where Inside-Out is headquartered, but the page is earmarked for Inside-Out.

Or mail checks to:

The Inside-Out Center

Suite 331; MB 66-10

1810 Liacouras Walk

Temple University

Philadelphia, PA 19122

Identity in the Serbu Book Club

Though the whole term at book club has been a fun, insightful experience, by far the most thought provoking activity we participated in this term was centered around identity.   We posted categories around the room such as “religion,” “neighborhood,” “body image,” “education,” “gender,” “ethnicity,” and “health,” and a U of O student asked questions about which category we identified the most or the least with in a given scenario.  For example, one of the questions was “I value this part of my identity the most.”  Everyone was supposed to stand next to the category they chose for each question, and then we went around the room offering explanations for our choices if we felt comfortable doing so.  The exercise was great for multiple reasons: it allowed us to move around, learn more about each other and, most importantly, open up and share more as we saw fit.  The youth in particular shined when we were asked to share our choices.  They were willing to speak about topics as personal as religion, the communities they grew up in, their families’ socioeconomic backgrounds, and how they perceive gender.  I was surprised by how quickly and easily they shared with us, and how comfortable the atmosphere was in the room.  It was one of the first activities we tried this term, and by the end of it I felt like I knew everybody so much better.  This term presented some challenges, mainly because we typically only had two to four youth in the room at a time and they were regularly pulled out of the classroom, but this activity helped us get to know each other and feel closer despite these difficulties.  It was a great exercise to start off with, and one that Book Club should keep in mind for the future! -Mackenzie M.

UO Inside-Out Alumna

Drinking Tea and Making Plans

I started drinking coffee at OSP.  I never liked it before, but one of the students in Ellen Scott’s 2011 Sociology class arranged for coffee during our break each week.  And as a guest, I would not turn down coffee from a gracious host.  Now I can’t get enough, and never drink a cup without thinking of those February afternoons discussing education and the myth of the American Dream. Last Tuesday I had an experience which brought me back to those coffee breaks with astounding clarity.

I have begun to work with the Educational Shakespeare Company: a Belfast organization that does art, education, and empowerment work with at-risk communities, inmates, and ex-prisoners.  They are a great group of folks, largely staffed by ex-prisoners and driven by a commitment to the power of dialogue and literature to change lives.  They even produced a feature-length adaptation of Macbeth, called Mickey B, filmed in the prison and with inmate actors.  They are innovative and bold and profoundly inspiring.

And they serve me tea when I walk in the door.  It is really something to be welcomed as a guest and a colleague, as a participant and witness.  I feel the same sense here at the ESC as I did at OSP: that I have a purpose in simply being present, and offering my thoughts and, when possible, help with their work.

I am still learning my way around, but here’s an obvious overlap and cool idea for Inside-Out activities, with more potential to come.  They hold a reading group with ex-prisoners.  The project coordinator comes each week with a short story and a poem, which she reads aloud with pauses for discussion.  If the participants feel so moved, they interrupt with ideas or to take their own turn to read aloud.  And that’s that: the simplest of ideas, but which allows for a profound entry into dialogue and expression.  Last week we talked through the story and, in so doing, talked about our lives and our childhoods, our view of the world and our appreciation of storytelling and fiction.  The poem was beautiful and evocative, leading us to discuss the delicacy of life and the importance of recognizing that we are only here for a short time.

And that was just my first week in the group!  I can’t wait to see what next week’s reading will bring.

I hope to build links between Inside-Out and the ESC.  They’ve done some incredible work with youth, and with using arts on the inside.  And they are excited to learn about Inside-Out, and to see what we’ve built both in Oregon and across the country.

The lessons I learned in Inside-Out are serving me well in Belfast, and in concrete ways.  I think of OSP and Sister Helen and Serbu every single day.

So how else can we use our experiences?  Any suggestions from you folks?  From other alumni—how can we build networks and new ideas from our projects?

Seriously, friends, we’ve got ideas worth building on.  Just share a cup of tea or coffee, and offer your presence.

-Katie D.

UO Inside-Out Alumna

Michelle Alexander at UO

Dead week has hit the University of Oregon campus, but alumni activities continue in spite of it. We have two sessions remaining of this term’s Book Club at the Serbu Center in Eugene. It has been an interesting term as some institutional changes have cut our group size in half, but we have also had some powerful moments that we’re excited to share with you all. More on those to come. The Oregon Humanities Center recently brought Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to campus. She is a former civil rights lawyer (she worked in California) and a current professor at Ohio State University.

Ms. Alexander gave a powerful talk on the intersection between race and incarceration rates in the United States, relating the mass incarceration of black Americans to the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation and ensured that African-Americans would remain second class citizens in the post-Civil War era.

The speech goes into her personal motivation for writing The New Jim Crow, including the moments that “awakened” her to the issue of mass incarceration of people of color, as well as painting an overview of the relationship between race and incarceration in the US.

I highly recommend this talk to anyone interested in these issues. It’s an engaging and thoughtful look at our criminal justice system, and well worth your time. Luckily, it was recorded and the video is available for all those who wish to see it!

To view the video, go here:


Inside-Out Alumna

The Burning Bush: Last Reflections on Sister Helen's Visit

As an agnostic Unitarian Universalist, I’ve never found Bible references to be particularity persuasive argumentative tools. In fact, when people cite biblical authority I tend to feel more alienated than convinced. Still, when Sister Helen Prejean leaned forward in her chair in the chapel at Oregon State Penitentiary and in her beautiful Louisiana drawl recounted the story of the burning bush, even I could understand its significance. Her retelling didn’t emphasize faith, instead, she told the story as a moment of awakening, when Moses first understood his responsibility to his people. From the mouth of the activist nun, the story takes on new resonance; the burning bush becomes a gift, a means of liberation from apathy. Inside-Out was my burning bush. In a way that no book, lecture, storytelling, or statistics could, participation in this encounter with the Other shook me awake. I see now, because of my experience in I-O, how action is liberating, how it frees people from their sense of helplessness and insignificance.

At the same time, Inside-Out is also exhausting. While intellectually stimulating, it is emotionally trying, and unlike the burning bush, it does not burn without consuming. This is why Sister Helen’s visit here was so valuable. As she travels the country, she hears thousands of stories. She hears from victims, perpetrators, from those incarcerated and free. A master-weaver, she gathers all those yarns and makes a tapestry, shows us that all this is bigger than each of us; that we are not alone in our exhaustion, burn-out, and dead-ends, but neither are we alone in our successes and triumphs.

I do not think that Sister Helen is anything more than a very brave, and very energetic woman. Indeed, she reminds you that she’s human constantly, through her Yiddish-Buddhist philosophy jokes, her knowledge of zombie videogames, and her gentle ribbing. To make her more than human is to undercut the work that all of us can do despite our imperfections. That said, Sister Helen’s work and stories bring us powerful messages:

  • The idea that waking up to our responsibility and capacity for action is liberating- it grants us a community and a purpose
  • The reminder that humor and kindness are not peripheral to our work but foundational
  • The message that we are not alone in our struggles or our triumphs, and that seeing the Other and being seen by the Other are both human duties and human rights.

While I will probably never be a Christian, this dedication to the Other, to action, to acknowledging the capacity in all of us to do good in our lives no matter our history, feels like faith to me. It is un-provable, un-substantiated, but it moves me towards good everyday and carries me through my moments of defeat. In this way, Sister Helen helped re-affirm my faith and my membership in a movement bigger than myself.

-Kehala H.

Inside-Out Alumna, UO