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Inside the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s “Inside Out Prison Exchange” Class

Updated: Apr 5

Kylie Martin, Staff Writer - Student Life


Students engaging in the class. Photo//Kylie Martin


As we approach registration season for the 2022-2023 year, I’d like to shed some light on one of the hidden gems UM-Dearborn offers: the “Inside Out Prison Exchange”. The class is typically taught from a classroom inside Macombs Correctional Facility, allowing university students to engage with incarcerated students to study and reflect upon real crime and justice issues.


The class is instructed by Professor Paul Draus and Professor Anna Muller along with a handful of associate professors with firsthand experience as formerly incarcerated students of the Inside Out Prison Exchange.


Together, they work with their students to cover difficult topics through a range of different perspectives, like social order, stereotypes, dehumanization, and incarceration. They continue to think beyond the prison system to illustrate other ways people can be “imprisoned” through aspects of social power and exclusion.


The class attracts an assortment of different majors as students develop awareness about how criminal justice plays a part in everyone’s lives. The only requirement to register for the class is that you must be of junior or senior standing, which Professor Draus explained, is to ensure students are emotionally mature enough to handle the serious topics and experiences they encounter in class.


Draus further explained that when the class is taught from the correctional facility’s classroom, the prison may introduce some significant stressors into students’ lives. “Not only can prison security be intimidating, but students also often find themselves in emotionally-tough situations as they build relationships with those in prison. Older students are typically better at handling these situations with emotional maturity,” Professor Draus said.


Unfortunately, the Inside Out Prison Exchange hasn’t been able to instruct classes from within Macombs Correctional Facility since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Draus explained how it’s been tough to replicate the same intensity without allowing university students and incarcerated students directly interact with each other.


Still, they have found other ways to create a similar experience by allowing students to exchange letters, sharing some of the inmates’ written works, and even inviting family members of the incarcerated to speak about the experience of having a loved one in prison.


According to the professors, one of the most essential components of making the Inside Out Prison Exchange such a success is its dialogic format, where concepts are learned through group discussion and hands-on experiences.


“There’s no power struggle between the students and the professor,” said Associate Professor Lynn Mcneal. “It creates a dynamic environment where you all share the same space and respect everyone’s opinion. Then, you can learn how to efficiently and effectively express yourself and really elevate yourself so that you still retain what you learned even once you leave the environment we’ve created.”


“As professors, we really just set the stage,” Draus continued to explain. “All the activities we do just brings us all down to ‘human-level’; we all see each other as human, instead of ‘students’ and ‘professors’. And in this way, I swear we learn just as much from the students as they do from us.”


Each class session consists of different engaging activities that help teach the topic or theme of the day. For example, on the day that I was able to observe the class, the activity was “Laughter Yoga.” All members of the class exited the Mardigian Library, where the course is being taught because of the pandemic, to stand atop the mound where individuals had to shake one another’s hands, look into their eyes, and simply laugh until told to stop. When they returned to the classroom, all sitting in a large circle facing the group, the professors explained the significance of the activity and related it to the topic.


In the case of Laughter Yoga, it was not only to help peers become more comfortable with one another, but also to appreciate their right to laughter. They explained that in prison, laughter is suppressed; it’s viewed as excessive noise needing to be silenced, allowing correctional officers to dehumanize the inmates further.


One of the other most notable aspects of the Inside Out Prison Exchange class is the semester-long projects that the students produce in small groups. Each project revolves around a crucial concept taught within the semester and serves as a way to put what they learn into practice.


This semester, the class focused on “juvenile lifers”: individuals who commit a crime while under eighteen and are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The class helped to point out the severity of this situation, explaining how people often continue learning and developing themselves well into adulthood. This means giving a life sentence to individuals at such a young age should be reconsidered due to the long-term effects it can have on an individual. In addition, each group project seeks to raise awareness of the issue in one way or another.


One of the Inside Out Prison Exchange groups has been working on promoting the world premiere of a concert event on April 9th, titled “Fallen Petals of Nameless Flowers”, featuring a musical performance by Imani Winds and poetry readings based on the writings of former juvenile lifers.


During the concert's intermission, audience members can view a gallery of artwork made by juvenile lifers. After the show, they are welcome to join a reception in which juvenile lifers are given the opportunity to share their stories.

The goal of the event is to create a safe space in which people can discuss the wrongful state of the prison system and, in doing so, to spread awareness of the unfair sentencing of juvenile lifers.


Another group has been working on developing an art show for April 25th to display a collection of artwork produced by inmates. Reading a novel on the Rwandan genocide back in 1994 inspired incarcerated individuals to create art with Afrocentric themes. Now, members of the Inside Out Prison Exchange have decided to use this art to demonstrate what inmates are capable of when given the opportunities and resources.


They will also be selling books and prints of the art featured at the showing and donating all proceeds to the Youth Justice Fund. This is to help juvenile lifers experience developmental opportunities that they were never able to have and to help the incarcerated cope with the emotional toll of having to reintegrate into society upon being released.


Another group within the class, labeled the “campus outreach group”, has been working on ways to inform all UM-Dearborn students about the class's mission and some of the topics they cover.


For example, the group has developed a website to condense the information for all the Inside Out Prison Exchange group projects into one source to make it easier for other students to explore what the program offers. They have also been developing surveys to send out to UM-Dearborn students to collect opinions or questions on juvenile lifers and the prison system to produce podcasts further.


The podcasts will contain interviews with the formerly incarcerated and other material discussed in the Inside Out Prison Exchange class to help answer students’ questions on the matter and reduce stigmas.


For more information on the Inside Out Prison Exchange projects and purchasing tickets for any events, go to insidevoices.me.

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