Prison study program enters Alabama classroom

For those majoring in criminal justice, political science, or even students who want to take a new type of course, next semester has an option for them to check out.

The course, a branch of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, will give 10 “outside” students the opportunity to study alongside 10 incarcerated inmates (“inside” students) at Limestone County Correctional Facility.

“Restorative Justice in American Literature,” will go through various texts all connected to restorative justice, a criminal model focused on the transformation and reintegration of criminals as opposed to an isolating, non-reformative incarceration.

Assistant English Professor Katie Owens-Murphy is the first teacher to bring the program to Alabama. She has been involved with prison education since her doctoral program.

“Seeing how passionate (Owens-Murphy) is about (prison literature and reform) certainly makes studying them more enjoyable,” said graduate student Colby Dow.

To teach the course, Owens-Murphy had to undergo a 60-hour training week in Philadelphia last August. Trainees spent time at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute at Graterford interacting with inmates.

“I learned more about teaching in that week of training than I have in my whole career,” she said.

The program began in 1995 when Lori Pampa, a Temple University professor, got the idea from a prisoner to teach a class with inmates and college students, allowing them to read and work on projects together.

Pompa taught the first class of the program as a criminal justice course in 1997. Soon, the program began expanding worldwide, now consisting of more than 750 certified teachers in 11 countries.

“Consistently, people who teach these classes come back to us and tell us that for their students, and for themselves as instructors, (the program) is a very powerful, life-changing experience,” Pompa said.

Pompa said she is glad to see the program starting in Alabama as there are fewer teachers involved in the South as other areas.

Owens-Murphy was one of the UNA faculty members involved in teaching a class with prisoners at the Limestone prison last semester.

She said the course can show the “inside” students a framework of understanding the criminal system, as well as give them the experience of being in college.

“The ‘inside’ students feel really good about being on the same level as college students and trying to compete and really dedicate themselves to the reading and course material so they can keep up with the college students,” she said. “The college students really appreciate learning topics of criminal justice alongside people who have experienced that system firsthand.”

Political science and criminal justice majors can get credit for this class as a special topics course (as CJ 491 and PS 490 respectively), but it is open to all undergraduate and graduate students, with the latter receiving credit for a 500-level class.

Owens-Murphy said criminal justice students could benefit from the course by getting a firsthand experience of the prison system from the inside.

Pompa said she is impressed with the different types of material Owen-Murphy’s course will cover.

“I think (using different kinds of writing) is always a good idea,” she said. “Different people react or respond to different things. So, I think she’s really smart in terms of having all of these different genres. I would want to take (this) course.”

Students interested in the course must complete an interview and application. For more information, contact Owens-Murphy at [email protected].