Earlier this month, nearly one-quarter of the Furman student body logged onto Zoom on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 2nd. What followed was an unprecedented encounter: an hour-long conversation with three men incarcerated at the Lafourche Transitional Work-Release Program in Raceland, Louisiana.
The dialogue was organized by the Furman Prison Education Partnership (FPEP) and centered around Damien, Juan, and Mack, three men at Lafourche who are participants in the “Inside-Out” program. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, founded in 1995, seeks to facilitate dialogue through partnerships between institutions of higher learning and correctional systems.
Dr. Sally Morris-Cote co-director of FPEP and the Riley Institute’s Director of Nonprofit Strategic Learning facilitated the panel conversation that followed. The men opened up about daily life and their relationships in prison, their experiences as incarcerated people re-entering society, and anecdotes demonstrating how prison can be chaotic and traumatic. Their experiences as “Voices From the Inside” gave students a glimpse into life behind and beyond bars.
The conversation began with Damien, a 34-year-old and father of four, who described the “purity” of the relationships within prison because people get to know each other at their lowest point. He emphasized how important companionship is when in prison, “to get you through your hard times.” He said, “everybody needs somebody...to vent to.”
Upon re-entering society after incarceration, Damien mentioned that life might throw you some curveballs. Juan, also a father who has been incarcerated for 28 of his 42 years, offered insight into how difficult re-entering society can be, especially without family support. When navigating the transition, acquiring simple documents like an ID, a birth certificate, or a social security card becomes an obstacle, “the curveballs come so fast, you don’t even see it coming.”
During the Q&A later in the conversation, a student posed the question, “what is one stereotype about prison or incarcerated people that you wished was debunked?” Damien immediately answered, “That we’re all just animals… That we’re cold-hearted, murderers, just bad people… I don’t think people consider the circumstances surrounding our [incarceration].”
At Lafourche, the Inside-Out Program transitioned to a virtual format in late Spring 2020. This permitted Dr. Kristen Callais, an adjunct instructor of sociology and director of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, to bring a computer into the facilities—and make this event possible.
“Higher education and corrections are among the most powerful institutions in the world today. Yet, both have limitations in their ability to foster just and humane societies… Dialogue across social barriers is transformative and allows problems to be approached in new and different ways … [fostering collaboration and] leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern.”
– Lori Pompa, Founder and Executive Director of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program
Furman’s first Inside-Out course was planned to run in the Fall of 2020, but these plans were shifted by the ongoing pandemic. This postponed all in-person opportunities for direct-dialogue and prevented Furman students and professors from entering Perry Correctional Institution, Furman’s prison exchange partner for the Inside-Out Program.
Morris-Cote explained that the vision for FPEP all along has been to create community. “We wanted to create opportunities for students on both sides of the wall to have opportunities for transformational dialogue,” said Morris-Cote.
She shared how the end goal was education, but that had “taken a back burner to the more pressing need of creating the infrastructure to bring [the Inside-Out] Program to Furman.” With this course now delayed until spring of 2022, several avenues for learning about the criminal justice system and connecting with incarcerated people have become possible.
Dr. Laura Morris, also a co-director of FPEP and Assistant Professor of English, said the vision of the program is to “bring education to carceral settings and about carceral settings.”
COVID-19 forced the directors to pivot. However, if it was not for these circumstances, Morris-Cote said they might not have actualized their vision to “expand and bring to life a larger … ongoing vision for public education and awareness around mass incarceration” so soon.
Claire Conzelmann, a member of the FPEP student group and a student who had hoped to enroll in the Fall 2020 course, has found meaning through FPEP’s structured writing exchange with incarcerated students at Perry. Through this exchange, students respond to prompts in the format of a letter to share their life experiences and perspectives. In return, they receive a response written by a student at the opposite institution.
Conzelmann said being able to “read how someone thinks … and getting to learn about their life” has sparked a deeper capacity to “see incarcerated people as people,” which she says is the center of FPEP’s goal.
Exchanging a letter enables incarcerated individuals and people not incarcerated to form an authentic connection, “it makes it more personal.” It’s “humanizing, and can change the way we think about people who are incarcerated… and our criminal justice system,” said Conzelmann. FPEP’s writing exchange is open to any Furman student who wishes to participate.
Sydney Kittrell became engaged with FPEP’s work out of a genuine curiosity about incarcerated life and a desire to think about the criminal justice system from a perspective of empathy. Kittrell said events such as this CLP are invaluable for transforming our perception of incarcerated people from “numbers or statistics” to seeing them like “stories, and people that I have some sort of connection to.” She continued by expressing how important it is for Furman students to step outside of their world, and consider realities apart from their own.
Morris emphasized how “bringing people into the prison is a powerful thing, but we’ve been able to meet a much broader audience” through virtual gatherings and CLPs.
One of the final questions from the student audience asked the men on the panel to share what they think needs to be done to reform the prison system. Juan said we need more open-minded conversations with incarcerated people to deconstruct prejudice and stereotypes. “What we’re doing right now, that plays a big part,” Mack stressed the importance of supporting vulnerable people in the community. “If you motivate [individuals] and stand behind them, they’re gonna feel like they mean something.”
When introducing himself, Damien said he hoped to “provide students with a window to the realities of the criminal justice system in America,” and their dialogue on Tuesday night did just that. Meeting others' experiences with an open mind is powerful. Kittrell says students must grapple with: “This is real. Do you care? Do you have empathy for this?” Encountering “three lives that are drastically different from yours” forms this opportunity.
Junior Joe Wilson reflected on the importance of attending events that educate students about the criminal justice system, “because, like me, you will learn how unjust this system truly is.” He added, “this was the most engaging and beneficial CLP I’ve been to at Furman, and I can’t wait for another FPEP event.” Many students shared similar sentiments and expressed how dialogue with Damien, Juan, and Mack, challenged and expanded the way they think about incarcerated people.
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Furman’s inaugural Inside-Out course will launch in Spring 2022 in partnership with Perry Correctional Institution. In the meantime, if you are interested in becoming involved or learning more about FPEP, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Soon an official FPEP website will also be accessible through Furman’s site, which will include past videos of the speaker series.