Law students and inmates learn from each other at IU McKinney’s ‘Inside-Out’ course

July 12, 2017


For men who live behind high fences topped with razor wire, time is the one possession they have in great supply. Yet the group of inmates at the Department of Correction’s Indianapolis Re-entry Educational Facility over and over thanked the law students for giving them the time to visit and learn.

The session was part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange class being taught through Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law this summer. Professor Shawn Boyne organized the class that brought law students and incarcerated men together to examine race, citizenship and crime. It is believed to be one of the few inside-out courses in the country conducted by a law school.

“I’m hoping they see incarcerated people as people,” Boyne said of her goals for the law students. “And I hope they also see how difficult some of these issues are that we’re facing.”

The IU McKinney course is based on the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program that was developed in the 1990s at Temple University. With classes now taught around the world, the program calls for outside students (typically at the undergraduate or graduate levels) to join inside students (the inmates) at a prison to discuss issues related to criminal justice.

Boyne described the class as bringing a dose of reality to all the book learning. The law students have read about the criminal justice system and possibly have interned in a public defender or prosecutor’s office, but the inside students have lived crime and punishment and can offer a perspective that otherwise might not be available. For the inmates, they gain a deeper understanding of courts and incarceration as well as take part in the conversation about what is happening and why.

In total, 12 outside students and 12 inside students participated in Boyne’s course. The IU McKinney group, which included enrollees in the day and night programs, said the class was eye-opening and very much changed their views of people who are incarcerated. They learned lessons that they have been carrying back to their friends and families and they will remember when one day their own clients are sitting across the table.

Rising 2L students Trevor Oakerson and Jonathan Lounds said the course highlighted that their inside colleagues are human beings and showed how prison can affect an individual. The inmates have debts to repay to society but even after they are released, they will forever be labeled by their past actions.

Faith Long, a master of jurisprudence candidate, hesitated to call herself “jaded,” but she admitted she was surprised at how open and willing to engage the inside students were. In the back of her mind, she continues to wonder what the inmates will do once they are released, since some say they are committed to staying out of trouble and others talk about how they will likely reoffend.

Still, the impact the class had on her was visible as she openly fretted over one inside classmate in particular. She worried he would not be able to stay safe and would make bad decisions that would prevent him from being released.

Behind the high fence

The IU McKinney Inside-Out course met Tuesdays during the first summer term from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the re-entry facility.

For the class on June 20, the law students gathered inside the entrance of the minimum-security prison where they deposited their car keys in a locker then dumped their notebooks and shoes in plastic bins before going through the metal detector. Doors locked and eventually unlocked so they were able to flow onto the grounds and walk to their building.

The classroom was a large space with bright white cinder-block walls, an orange-tiled floor, florescent lights and narrow windows. To start, the inside and outside students sat on black plastic chairs arranged in a large circle and did an ice-breaker exercise of telling how their parents choose their names.

Next, the law students and inmates paired off for private conversations about what they gained from the inside-out studies and what they would miss about the class. Then they formed into groups of four to work through a list of questions about the assigned reading, scrawling their answers on big pieces of white butcher paper taped to the walls.

inside-out-017-15col.jpg The rigorous curriculum for the Inside-Out class at IU McKinney School of Law included a heavy dose of reading material and weekly writing assignments. (IL Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

Boyne acknowledged she was a little apprehensive about teaching the class, unsure how the curriculum would work with inmates and law students. However, a couple weeks in she called the class among her favorites in eight years of teaching.

Eden Strange, a rising 2L, knew his inside classmates were smart before he arrived at the re-entry facility for the first time. An African-American man, Strange looked more like the inside students than his outside group and he knew from his experiences in grade school that the inmates were capable of doing college-level work. They had just grown up in circumstances, he said, where reading, writing and arithmetic got overwhelmed by hardships like their family’s home having the electricity shut off or a relative having been arrested.

Boyne saw her law students get a more nuanced view of the penal system. They came to realize the complexity of making changes and that what may seem like a positive change might actually harm the inmates. She recalled a previous session where the outside students suggested all prisoners be allowed to wear their street clothes while incarcerated to preserve their individuality. The inside students nixed the idea, saying it would add to the tension because some would have nicer, more expensive clothes. Plain prison uniforms, they told the law students, helps in breaking down their criminal minds and building a new identity.

“I think both groups of students get to see the other side as something different than they imagined,” Boyne said.

Unexpected ending

The Inside-Out class was scheduled to end July 11 with a graduation ceremony. The law students and incarcerated men would be recognized for their work, receive certificates of completion and talk about their own experiences in the class.

However, the plans were disrupted when the Department of Correction announced June 14 that the minimum-security facility would be closing. Without warning, the class held June 20 turned out to be the last time the inside and outside students were together.

Already the inside students were in the process of packing and being told where they were being sent. Some were surprised when they saw the law students walking across campus into the classroom building and although they had thought about skipping the class, they choose to gather their materials and come for the final session.

IU McKinney student Mike Cunningham, who will complete his studies in December, pointed out the irony that while the closing of a prison would be celebrated as good news, he and his outside colleagues understood the shuttering of the re-entry facility would adversely impact the inside students. One of the inside students painted the situation in stark colors, explaining they were going back to prison where rapes, stabbings and drugs are part of everyday life.

The following week, Boyne conducted the class at IU McKinney with only her law students. “There’s no law in what happened last Tuesday. It was political,” she told her class. “It was money and somebody making decisions that really had nothing to do with what those guys had done.”

Jessie Fields, a night student at IU McKinney, had cried during the last session at the re-entry facility but by the next class at the law school, she was angry. She repeatedly questioned the closure and noted without the re-entry facility to ease the inmates back into civilian life, the transition will be much more abrupt and almost ensure recidivism.

It might not be the last time Fields will question decisions about inmates. She had planned to practice family law but what she saw and learned as part of the Inside-Out class has her reconsidering her future and thinking seriously about using her law degree in re-entry administration.•


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