Innovative 'Inside-Out' Program Provides Learning Opportunity for UK and Blackburn Prison Students

by Ann Blackford

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 14, 2013) — University of Kentucky students are participating in a unique learning opportunity for the first time this semester with incarcerated individuals from Kentucky's Blackburn Correctional Complex (Blackburn), a minimum-security Lexington prison.

The UK College of Social Work  and Department of Sociology are partnering with the Kentucky Department of Corrections to pilot a new innovative course called "Drugs and Crime, An Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program Course.” The course, which meets once a week at Blackburn, brings 16 college students (from the outside) together with 16 persons who are incarcerated (from the inside) to study as peers in a seminar behind prison walls.

The course examines the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs through the lens of sociological analysis and a social work framework for policy and treatment. Throughout the semester, students read more than 400 pages, write 10 reflection papers, create group presentations, and write a 15-20 page final paper.  By the end of the semester, students will have an understanding of issues surrounding: 1) addiction and health, 2) criminalization of drug use, and 3) system responses to drugs and crime.

Group photoThe Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was developed in 1997 at Temple University and founded on the premise that incarcerated individuals and college students had a significant amount to learn from each other when studying together as peers in the same environment. The program is currently successfully operating in more than 300 prison institutions and college/university programs worldwide, and this is the first semester at UK.

Carrie Oser, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and  Michele Staton-Tindall, associate professor in the College of Social Work serve as instructors for the course. Both strongly agree that the Kentucky Department of Corrections has been very supportive of the Inside-Out Program and forward-thinking as they look for learning opportunities for students.

"I wanted to teach an Inside-Out course because as a sociologist, I believe it’s important to examine social problems like drugs and crime from multiple perspectives, as it could ultimately promote social change," Oser said. "I think the Inside-Out model of pedagogy offers a unique and innovative style of interactive learning with the potential to have a tremendous impact by (1) increasing the number of college graduates in the workforce with applied, experiential learning experiences that extend beyond the traditional classroom, (2) increasing opportunities for offenders at community re-entry, and (3) building university connections with community institutions in order to address priority needs such as advancing education."

Staton-Tindall agrees.  "The class focuses on reasons underlying addiction and the consequences of addiction for individuals, families, communities, and systems.  This class provides a tremendous opportunity for students to sit together and understand different viewpoints on these experiences — an opportunity that reaches beyond traditional classrooms to begin to understand how different life experiences actually shape learning."

At the end of the semester, a closing ceremony is planned to celebrate the students’ accomplishments. Officials from the Kentucky Department of Corrections, Blackburn, and UK will attend and listen as students present their course projects and papers and discuss their perspectives about the course.

So far, student feedback has been highly supportive.

Rachel, a UK ‘outside” student said, “This class has meant more than I could have ever hoped. It’s shattered my biases. This has been the Student group at workmost influential and meaningful class of my undergraduate career.”

Likewise, John, an ‘inside’ Blackburn student, had lots of praise for the class. “I look forward to this class every week because I am learning about the correlation between drugs and crime," he said. "It is interesting to receive feedback from others and get their point of view. I love to read and the readings for the class each week are awesome!”

The instructors share the students' enthusiasm.  "This is hands-down the most fun I’ve ever had in the classroom," Staton-Tindall said. "The students’ quest for learning and their dedication to not only the material but to the experience is so encouraging to see.  It’s truly a rewarding experience for everyone involved in the class."

"Teaching an Inside Out course has been the most rewarding teaching experience in my career," Oser said.  "I truly believe it will be the course that has the single greatest influence on students' future educational and career pursuits."

The Lexington Herald-Leader also covered this story, which you can read here