How a Temple professor and a prison inmate started an international movement

A lot of things can go wrong when you’re teaching a class that’s half college students, half maximum-security prison inmates.

Sure, there’s the normal stuff: Students could slack on their homework, or lose interest in the class and withdraw. But also, a student could pass contraband behind bars, or believe that his or her safety is threatened. People could build inappropriate relationships, or maybe fall in love.

“I’ve seen really wonderful programs that have gotten shut down,” Temple University professor Lori Pompa said.

It’s all the more remarkable, then, that the program Pompa started 20 years ago in a Philadelphia county jail, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange, has endured for two decades — and expanded to about 150 correctional institutions across the globe. Thanks to its uniquely democratic approach and rigorous parameters, a total of 30,000 “inside” and “outside” students have participated, while course options have expanded from criminal justice to subjects spanning the social sciences, humanities, and arts.

Many of the professors and students who’ve participated gathered in Philadelphia this weekend for an anniversary celebration and conference — held, fittingly, half at Temple and half inside Graterford  Prison.

“Our levels of incarceration have to some extent been allowed to get so out of control because the vast majority of people don’t know what’s happening,” Pompa said. “How change happens in the world, it’s almost one person at a time. So we’re multiplying those persons.”

Pompa started out 30 years ago by volunteering for a tutoring program at Holmesburg Prison, the now-defunct Philadelphia jail.

“It was very Medieval-looking, dark, dingy, dirty, and loud, and hundreds of men were in there,” she said. “I thought, ‘What is this that we’re doing?’ It was very clear that the majority were men of color, mostly African American. I saw right away the waste of humanity.”

Later, Temple hired her to teach courses about corrections, so she began bringing classes to tour prison facilities and meet with inmates. She wanted her students to see what she’d seen that first day in Holmesburg, to raise the same questions about the justice system that she’d been struggling with.

A turning point came in 1995. She had arranged for her students to meet with a panel of men serving life sentences at Dallas Prison in central Pennsylvania. “It was amazing conversation, unlike anything I’d had in a prison or a classroom or anywhere,” she said. “No one wanted it to end. And when it was finished, one of the guys from the panel came up to me and said, ‘Have you ever thought of doing this over the course of a semester?’ ”

She hadn’t, but the idea haunted her. Still, an attempt to launch it in state prison proved impossible at the time.

So, after two years of research, crafting a syllabus and negotiating with prison administrators, Pompa began teaching her first Inside-Out course in a Philadelphia county jail.

It went so well, she kept teaching it, semester after semester. Slowly, other Temple professors asked her to help them set up their own Inside-Out classrooms.

She was visiting Graterford Prison on a 2001 tour when Tyrone Werts, the president of the prison’s lifers’ organization, approached her. He remembered when she’d tried to launch Inside-Out at Graterford. “When are we going to do that thing?” he wanted to know.

So, Pompa put together a proposal and Werts pitched every guard, major, and counselor he knew. Within a few days, he’d won permission.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Inside-Out staffer Tyrone Werts, a former lifer at Graterford Prison, helped launch the program there.

The class launched in Graterford in 2002. Pompa’s students, she found, were engaged in a way they never had been in the classroom. For the inmates, suddenly their opinions mattered.

“More than anything, it allowed me to develop my voice,” said John Pace, a lifer who participated in the class and now, after being released on parole, works for Inside-Out part-time doing outreach.

“It was so powerful that the end of the semester the inside and outside students said, ‘We want to keep meeting, because we’re really concerned about these issues of crime and justice,’ ” Pompa said. They convened a group they called the Think Tank. Fifteen years later, it’s still meeting weekly.

Werts, a high-school dropout who discovered a late-in-life love of education, earning his GED and bachelor’s degree while incarcerated, said the class “was transformative.”

It helped students test their assumptions about one another — and about themselves. In many prisons, higher-education opportunities are scarce — and, he said, often inmates don’t have the confidence or prerequisites to apply. “A lot of guys, like me, were smart and didn’t know it. So guys would get this educational experience and learn some things about themselves,” Werts said.

In 2004, he told Pompa she should take the program national.

She was skeptical, but with the Think Tank members she developed an outreach strategy, sought funding, and devised a curriculum for a seven-day intensive training course held partly at Temple and partly at Graterford. The goal was to impart the teaching style of Inside-Out, including discussions held in a circle, not a lecture from a podium, and the ground rules critical to the integrity of the program, such as restricting identification to first names.

“There are four things Inside-Out is not,” Pompa said. “We don’t study people; we’re not helping people; it’s not advocacy or activism; and it’s not an opportunity for people to develop relationships. It’s educational.”

Since then, they’ve hosted 51 trainings, for 807 instructors from 350 colleges and universities in 10 countries. This summer, Pompa will run the weeklong sessions in Chicago, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. About 28 institutions have started their own Think Tanks.

Over the past year, Swarthmore, Widener, Bucknell, Wilkes, Bloomsburg, and University of Pittsburgh have all run Inside-Out programs in Pennsylvania prisons. Mandy Sipple, a manager at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, was impressed by a class called “Drugs and Society,” taught there by a professor from Juniata College. “The class has had a positive and hopeful effect on the inmate participants, while the college students have voiced a new and unexpected respect for those individuals incarcerated,” she said.

In 2010, after 36 years in prison, Werts became one of just eight lifers granted commutations in Pennsylvania since 1995. He began working for Inside-Out after his release, looking for ways to expand the program even more. Making these connections, he believes, is the surest way to change the system.

“People on the outside think the inmates are monsters behind the walls, because that’s what they’re being fed in TV and movies,” he said. “And guys on the inside feel that they’re privileged white kids coming to study us like animals in a zoo.” But once they start meeting, “They realize they’re all people. We’re all just humans who are trying to make it in the world.”