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Turning Education Inside-Out

WWC Students and Incarcerated Students Share Courses at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women

Inside Out is an international prison education exchange program that was founded at Temple University in 1997, and has established a worldwide network of institutions of higher education and correctional facilities. Inside Out brings together incarcerated (Inside) and non-incarcerated (Outside) students for engaged and informed dialogue allowing for transformative learning experiences that invite participants to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern. The Inside Out pedagogy and methodology create these collaborative, creative contexts.

WWC is the only Inside Out program in the state of North Carolina. Founded in 2016, Inside Out at WWC collaborates with Western Correctional Center for Women in Swannanoa, and is funded by the Laughing Gull Foundation. We rotate course offerings in social work, creative writing, education, global studies, psychology, theater, sociology, and religious studies. All courses take place within the premises of the Western Correctional Center for Women. All courses are credit-bearing (8 credits per semester, typically 2 courses), and all students receive a Warren Wilson College transcript upon completion of coursework.

WWC’s Inside Out program was paused for nearly 23 months due to the pandemic. We were eager to start the spring semester at Western Correctional in January, 2022, but the surge in the COVID Omicron variant prevented in-person interaction. We shifted to a correspondence format, with students sending written feedback to one another on reading reflections. Since February 7, 2022, we have been in person with both Inside and Outside students together in the classroom. For the Spring 2022 semester, five Inside and four Outside students are enrolled in Voice & Speech, while four Inside and six Outside students are in the Intro to Social Work and Skills for Communication and Partnering courses.

More information from a news article published in the
2018 edition of Owl & Spade magazine:

Dr. Lucy Lawrence has taught Warren Wilson College courses in Cuba, Latvia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. But this past fall, Lawrence taught a course entirely in prison.

Lawrence held Introduction to Social Work in the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Inside-Out is a national nonprofit that helps colleges bring courses into prisons. In these unconventional classrooms, incarcerated students and campus-based college students come together to engage in “dialogue across difference.” Thanks to a three-year grant from the Laughing Gull Foundation, Warren Wilson College is the first and only Inside-Out partner in North Carolina, offering eight credits per semester in the correctional center.

On a Monday evening in May, students in the Emergent Literacy for Children class finished their final projects: handmade children’s books. The “inside” students wore teal prison uniforms. The “outside” students wore a different uniform—Warren Wilson t-shirts and jeans. Dr. Maura Davis asked students to show their work. For many of the inside students, an important talking point was who would receive their books—the project presented a rare opportunity to give something tangible to a loved one.

One inside student showed the class the book she created, Steven’s Big Move, which she explained was meant to ease a child’s anxiety about a life-changing event. At first she said that the book was for her “little brother” who would be moving soon. But then she paused and revealed that the two-year-old she referenced is not actually her brother—he is her son. She explained that her parents adopted him, and they taught him to call her “sister” now.

Sociology / Anthropology major Anna Keeva ’18 said that classroom moments like that one gave her insight into the fundamental, everyday sacrifices that imprisonment brings to families. She had not thought about these issues, previously. “I interacted with people whose experiences are so different from most of the people that I’ve interacted with in my life. It really gave me a different perspective,” she said. Experiences from two Inside-Out courses inspired her capstone project “Separation, Communication, and Devotion: An Exploration of Motherhood Behind Prison Walls.”

“We really want to establish deeply rigorous philosophical engagement in the classroom,” Dr. Rima Vesely-Flad said. “It’s not just an elite conversation amongst people who can afford to be there. It ripples outward, and then it matters in terms of how you engage the world.”

Vesely-Flad co-founded and directs the InsideOut program at Warren Wilson. She started her teaching career at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York 14 years ago. “It was this really extraordinary experience of working with hungry, hungry, hungry students,” she said.

When she started teaching at Warren Wilson, with its integrative learning and strong community engagement commitment, she knew she wanted to start a prison partnership, one that did not simply bring college to the prison—it brought other college students, too.

Because the courses are designed to keep the inside and outside students on even footing, Warren Wilson students are restricted to the same technologies that the inmates are allowed. “Group projects were hard,” Art major Morgan Landis ’20 admitted. “The inmates couldn’t use email or phones. If we had to work together, we couldn’t share information except on paper. Communication and collaboration were very difficult.”

The College brings other student services into the prison as well. Inmates are given writing studio time and academic support. Professors hold office hours in the prison. “Students from the prison really wanted access to me for individual time to consider what they could do with a social work education and career,” Lawrence said.

Everything must be approved all the way up to the state level, from allowing male-identified students into the women’s prison to lowering the participation age limit from 21 to 19. Dr. Julie Wilson directs the writing studios at both Warren Wilson and in the prison. She is working to bring limited internet access, such as library databases, to the inmates so that they can do research for papers. “We’ve opened this door,” Wilson said. “Now I feel a responsibility to walk through and see, ‘Okay, what’s next?’”

One inside student said that she had taken college courses in prison before, but in those earlier experiences, all of the students were prisoners. Inside-Out has been a strikingly different experience that made her feel like a real college student, equal. She stressed the word “real,” repeated it, and enthused that the experience has changed her life—she now has a goal to work toward.

Thank you to the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women for allowing a camera in the prison classroom. The warden asked us not to name or directly quote the inside students, so names have been omitted or changed, and quotes are paraphrased. The Inside-Out program at Warren Wilson would not have been possible without funding from the Laughing Gull Foundation and a Davidson Grant.