Prison exchange program gives inside view of Topeka’s incarcerated

Matthew L. Self, Review Editor in Chief

The Inside Out Prison Exchange Program is a new course at the Washburn School of Law that allows for a group of students to visit the Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility.

Taught by Professor Emily Grant, the course and time inside the barbed-wire fence will provide an opportunity for students to gain a greater understanding of the criminal justice system. They will interact with inmates and be able to see what it is like on the inside first hand.

The course is offered through the sociology department and is cross-listed with the honors program. Participants meet at the prison every Wednesday night from 6 to 8:30 p.m. They will be paired with selected residents for group projects and other collaborative work throughout the semester. Each of the 24 participants were interviewed by Professor Grant prior to enrollment.

“I’m looking for people who are open minded,” said Grant. “It’s important that you are open to new ideas and meeting others who have different life experiences. This course tends to attract the intellectually curious.”

The program is the only one of its kind to be offered in the state of Kansas. It got its start at Temple University in Pennsylvania in 1995 when a criminal justice professor by the name of Lori Pompa took her undergraduate students to a nearby correctional facility to meet incarcerated men.

“It’s about the unique experience and getting a new perspective,” said Grant. “The class breaks down barriers between insiders and outsiders of the criminal justice system.”

The course is open to all students, not just those in the field of criminal justice. Participation includes being a great listener, open-minded and the ability to work with others.

“The benefit to the students, both inside and out, is just phenomenal. Meeting people who you think are different but aren’t,” said Grant. “People who take the class will work to help improve the system. The benefit to students is immeasurable.”

Students will work interactively in a variety of group projects. At the end of the semester, each group of four or five people choose a topic. They submit a proposal to improve a part of the criminal justice system.

In the past, students have proposed a group therapy class. A program that would help teenagers in foster care – as well as a new training program for attorneys.

“Our final group project dealt specifically with correctional officers,” said Autumn Green, a former participant and criminal justice major. “We were able to go through the minimum and maximum parts of the prison. We wanted the officers to help re-humanize these women and see them as more than just cogs in the system – through the implementation of sociological training.”

Walking inside and interacting with incarnated individuals is something most students don’t get a chance to do.

Participating students who are part of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program tend to gain a greater understanding of their own freedom. They experience an appreciation of simple every-day liberties. They see the residents as more than felons – but rather as mothers, daughters, citizens and fellow students.

“I loved the class. I made real connections with my classmates and the women in the facility,” said Green. “Going inside the facility and speaking on a one-on-one basis was eye-opening.”

Any students interested in the program should contact Emily Grant. Grant’s office is located inside the Washburn Law School room 210.

Edited by Jason Morrison, Adam White, Wesley Tabor