Writing Center partners with inmates through exchange program

Hannah Carroll, Campus Carrier Staff Writer

Berry College’s Writing Center recently joined the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program to provide writing consultants for the prisoners participating.

The program, which Berry adopted in the spring of 2008, decided to involve the Writing Center following the decision to make the class offered an opportunity for those incarcerated to earn college credit. The decision to also include the writing center reflects the program’s desire to provide the prisoners, referred to as inside students, with the same educational opportunities offered to outside Berry students, according to Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Allred. Allred is the original instructor that first brought the program to Berry and has been teaching it for the last 11 years.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is a project created by Lori Pompa in 1995. Pompa was a professor in the criminal justice department at Temple University when she traveled with 15 of her students to the State Correctional Institution at Dallas, Penn., to participate in a panel discussion with incarcerated men who were serving time, many being life sentences, at the institution. After the hour-long discussion, one of the panelists approached Pompa and suggested expanding the conversation to a semester-long college course. She then approached the Philadelphia Prison System with the idea and began teaching the course, according to Allred.

Director of the Writing Center Melissa Mullins said that when she first heard of the program in spring of 2018, she was immediately intrigued. The writing consultants working for the Writing Center were informed of the program to gauge interest in participation, to which many volunteered to provide their assistance. As time constraints and other obstacles were identified, the list of participating consultants narrowed to a dedicated group of four: senior Assistant Director of the Writing Center Erika Cottrell, sophomore Shelby Newland, sophomore Rebekah Rowe and senior Hannah Barnes.

Before the course officially commenced, consultants completed a training program, according to Newland. Safety procedures were explained, and a viewing of the space they would utilize for sessions was given.

A significant aspect of this program is that it is not to be considered a community service project. The point of the program is to build a space of equality, where inside students are viewed on the same level as outside students. It is not a case of more privileged influencers coming to the aid of those who are less advantaged. The program benefits all who participate and acts as a learning experience for students and faculty alike, according to Allred.

“It is also, I think, a very enriching and growing experience from the perspective of the consultants, that they are learning while doing this as well,” Allred said. “We’re not there to help the inside students, but chip away at the ignorance a lot of people have about places like that and the people inside of them.”

Though the consultants were recruited to advise students during their writing workshops, they also have learned a lot that has been impactful as consultants and individuals. The lack of technology and advanced resources the inside students possess have given the consultants the challenge of altering their methods. Strategies that had previously seemed fundamental and were often overlooked now hold a significant value in the learning space of the inside students, such as the use of outlines before writing a paper, according to Cottrell.

“I’ve come to be able to quickly judge the gravity of the situation, like how much time can I expect to spend with this specific person on this, are they going to have any clue as to what this specific citation style is asking for or are they going to teach me something today,” Cottrell said.

A large variance of education levels exists among the inside students, according to Mullins. Some dropped out of high school and never made it to college, while others have attended graduate school. These discrepancies in schooling have taught consultants how to quickly identify main issues and the depth of explanation needed for each student. Working with a wide range of skill levels has forced consultants to revisit the basics of writing and become more attentive to detail, according to Rowe. In having to explain the rules in length, they also reteach themselves important skills of writing that they have forgotten over the years.

Consultants have also found themselves experiencing many eye-opening moments, especially in regard to the prison system. Many citizens hold preconceived notions of prison institutions and those who are incarcerated. Prisoners are often portrayed as uneducated, malignant and the bottom of society by the media, but the reality is much different, according to Cottrell. Working with the inside students is just like working with any other student from Berry, Newland said. They are no different than the rest of the society and are still human beings who deserved to be treated as such.

The main difference observed between the inside students and other Berry students is the level of excitement and gratitude shown for the schoolwork. It was a more enjoyable experience to work with the inside students, according to Cottrell. They were much more receptive and eager to take the opportunity to learn that had previously been denied to them.

The disparity in mindsets between the inside and outside students was that those incarcerated recognized education for what it was: a privilege. Students today often consider attending college a burdensome obligation, according to Newland, which causes them to lose their desire to learn and to be ungrateful for the opportunities given to them. Meanwhile, the inside students realize the magnitude receiving an education and are enthusiastic about the ability to attend class.

“It’s refreshing to have people so engaged and so invested in what they’re doing and who understand education is a privilege,” Newland said.

The inside students are all supportive of one another and their aims to better their education, according to Cottrell. They are constantly looking out for their peers and aiding in whatever means they can, creating an educational brotherhood as a result.

Though the program is an opportunity for those serving time in the justice system to receive an education and college credit, this is not the most significant aspect of it. The most important feature of the project is the deconstruction of misperceptions of prisoners and the reminder that they are just the same as anyone else, according to Mullins. The consultants realized the impact they have on the lives and mindsets of the inside students and see the importance of the program as a chance of rehabilitation and healing for those in the prison.

“They are no different than you are,” said Rowe. “They are just trying to figure out where they’re going in life just like everybody else.”

For more information on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program visit their website at http://www.insideoutcenter.org/

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