Teaching female inmates in prison

The first slide of University of Michigan sociology professor Lora Lempert’s powerpoint presentation read: “It’s like falling in love”: Teaching in Prison. Many would automatically question this statement because it seems so strange. Falling in love? In prison? Isn’t that a little inappropriate? But Lempert explained the different kind of love she was referring to.

“This came up in class a couple of weeks ago, when someone was trying to describe her experience as a member of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program and she said it was a little like falling in love. She wasn’t talking about falling in love with a single person.that’s not allowed in the program.what she’s talking about is falling in love with the process of learning in the Inside Out Program.”

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange program is a community-based service learning initiative that allows professors to teach incarcerated women alongside university students who act as peers. The program was started in 2003 by Lempert, who brought university-level classes to women in Scott Correctional Facility for Women in Plymouth, Michigan. This pilot program was funded by discretionary funds from the University of Michigan and became so successful that other universities started to replicate it.

Lempert focused on women, although the Inside-Out Program does involve incarcerated men, because she believes they are “forgotten” because 93 percent of people in prison are men.

“Women make up an increasing share of imprisonment.over 80 percent have children under the age of 18, over 85 percent of women in prison have history of family or interpersonal abuse,” she said.

She said most of these women who are incarcerated have committed “survival crimes” – for prostitution, drugs, shoplifting or writing bad checks. They are called “survival crimes” because women who commit them are usually doing because they need to support their family. Women in prison are usually poor, of color, uneducated, single parent or head of household who often don’t know when they are going to get their next meal to feed themselves or their family.

These characteristics matched the women in the Scott Correctional Facility where Lempert was teaching.

“The women inside.are the most honest, sincere, generous, forgiving, and thoughtful, both reflectively and academically, women that I know. They are pretty amazing,” she said.

Lempert first got her start when the American Friend’s Society asked her to teach a Family Violence class for the women’s prison. She declined to teach Family Violence, but taught a class called Understanding Women, which was an introduction to women’s studies. They started with about 27 students who applied in open enrollment, and Lempert and her colleagues team taught the class. At the end of the pilot class, professor and student evaluations were so high that they decided to continue the program and offer even more classes. When the women leave the prison, they can take their hard-earned credits with them and enroll at the University of Michigan.

Lempert beamed as she spoke of the success of the program.

“This December we’re going to be graduating our first women, and in May there will be the first master student,” she said.

Asked how she responds to people who don’t support the education of incarcerated people, she responded in a matter-of-fact tone.

“These folks are going to be out at some point . Do you want the person who has spent the last 15 years doing nothing? Maybe becoming a better criminal? Or do you want people living next to you who have redefined their lives and are moving forward?

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