Inside Out: Reflections on Crime and Punishment Course
By Shade Samuelson (Lewis & Clark, History ’17)
It’s 4pm on Friday, and we start packing up our books. Among the movement of the classroom, one student walks over to shake my hand, firmly, making direct eye contact as he does. With an honest smile, he tells me to have a great week. He’s not alone in this. Another, and another, walk over to shake my hand and the hands of every other student in the classroom. Though the goodbyes are plentiful, they are intimate and genuine. There is something special happening in this classroom, something that will be hard to preserve and later articulate to others. There is a sense of humanity and mutual recognition that I have never before experienced in a college classroom, much less one inside the Columbia River Correctional Institution.
We’re taught to believe that prisons are inevitable in society; that they are a natural way of punishing only those who truly deserve to be there. We’re taught to fear the mere idea of criminality, to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with someone who commits a crime. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program breaks down these ideas through an integrated class of Lewis & Clark students (“outside” students) and incarcerated men (“inside” students). The course traces the history of crime and punishment in the United States — through early methods of punishment, emancipation, and the convict leasing system — all in an effort to understand the rise of mass incarceration. Inside-Out reminds students that nothing in history is inevitable; it is all a result of human agency, and thus we have the ability to re-imagine and re-invent our world.
The class has some strict rules:
First: our professor, Reiko Hillyer, holds no office hours, nor does she respond to emails regarding the class. These seemingly trivial regulations point out that half the class is completely cut off from contact, their time with the professor limited to our weekly three hour meetings. At 4pm, half of us will drive home in our respective carpools to our usual weekends — full of parties, meet-ups, and homework — while the other half will remain in the building. They’ll wander upstairs or into the yard,
moving within the confines of the prison. Every time we leave, the daily injustices fade from our view like the building itself.
Another rule: aside from first names, we don’t share personal information with our classmates. This withholding sits in tension with the intimate bond we have created in the classroom, where our conversations often require vulnerability. This class is as much about learning from each other as it is about learning the history of mass incarceration. Inside-Out looks at the carceral state through lenses both historical and contemporary, combining our knowledge of Foucault’s panopticism with the knowledge and experiences of those who interact daily with the violence of the carceral state.
Third rule: The inside and outside students cannot contact each other outside of the class. At the end of this semester, half of my classmates — people who have challenged me, people who have become colleagues and friends — will be removed from my life. That knowledge makes our time together that much more precious. Inside-Out is not about bringing us together to study or to ‘help’ each other; it’s about learning alongside one another. The pedagogy of the class is reflected in the seating arrangement, alternating inside and outside students. It is eye-opening to be placed in physical proximity to someone whom society has deemed unworthy; there are deeply ingrained prejudices you can be unaware of until you’re forced to confront them through the eye contact of a peer. Sitting next to each other emphasizes our similarities, as we learn to hold conversations with those whose views and life paths may diverge completely from our own. We transgress social barriers while sitting together in a building designed to be an unbreakable barrier between us.
Final rule: We don’t ask anyone what they’re in for; it doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, and definitely will not matter to us inside the classroom.
By Joshua (Columbia River Correctional Institution)
Whenever a new Inside-Out course is commenced, our first day is full of curiosity, anxiety, and embarrassment, with the majority of students on edge. However, with the design of ice-breaking introductions and the inside student/outside student seating arrangements, it gradually becomes a safe place amid a sea of suffering, our island in the storm, our eventual temporary community.
I say temporary as the biggest rule of this class is not to keep in touch with fellow students after class has concluded, which is often incredibly difficult. Even so, the relationships that naturally occur between us in our constructed prisoner/free citizen society that meets once a week for three hours of peace on a term’s worth of Fridays will be cherished and humbling. This peace is a nudge of a reminder that we are not alone. We are in solidarity. A joint effort of grassroots change. And these bonds will be forever missed, and never forgotten.
We don’t get many options to invest in ourselves while “paying our debt to society.” Rather, we are pressured to toe the party line of assimilation and submission. Yet what this class offers is a welcome mat to a powerfully transformative experience that could not be lost to time, not to mention a temporary reprieve from the monotonous routine of prison life.
Reiko’s History 338 reminds me how it feels to be among those with similar pursuits of self-reflection and education; the feeling of being valued for my differences, able to express my opinions with an understanding and validity incomparable to other programs and classes that are offered here. I’ve found that it’s become difficult to interact with people in positive ways the longer I’ve been in prison, which is another reason I feel that being allowed to partake in healthy discussions in Reiko’s challenging domain is vital to my success post-release.
You see, I was arrested while enrolled in college in Eugene, and I allowed the hope I had of continuing my education or simply being in a college setting to decrease. However, when I finally came to Columbia River Correctional Institution in late January of 2015, I eventually found that that hope was not futile. I saw Reiko and her cohort while I was passing by the classroom to the yard, later learning that I merely had to be patient and wait for the next course to be offered. I had 46 months left at that time, so there was no choice but to learn patience in here.
This experience reminds me that at the end of this sentence, my humanity will not be lost due to being labeled a felon, and because of Lewis & Clark College, Reiko Hillyer, and all of my current and former classmates; my hope remains. This has ushered back my individuality, and all who’ve had the honor of experiencing it realize it has opened the door to a future world free of hierarchies and labels.
By all means, you’re welcome to join in solidarity.