Ever since Lori Pompa first stepped into Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia 22 years ago, her life has never been the same.
“I was deeply disturbed the first day I walked in there. It was a very old institution, it’s very scary looking,” Pompa said.
“The more I went back, the more I hated it, but the more I felt compelled to return,” Pompa added.
During a visit to the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, Pa., Paul, a prisoner there, suggested that Pompa create a program where students could visit prisoners on a weekly basis to talk about the prison system and its impact on society. The idea resonated with Pompa and eventually led her to create
the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.
Although she was not incarcerated, Pompa’s experience as a volunteer in the prison shook her to the core. She said she witnessed overcrowded facilities where the men there were essentially doing nothing.
Through her work as a volunteer in the Philadelphia Prison Society, Pompa said she eventually “came to know people as human beings beyond the label and crime they may have committed.”
In 1993, Pompa became an instructor in the criminal justice department here, teaching an introduction to corrections course. The position gave her an opportunity to share with students the powerful experience she had working in prisons. But Pompa said she couldn’t just sit in a classroom
talking about prisons. She wanted to take her students to one.
Subtitled “exploring issues of crime and justice behind the walls”, the program has come to mean so much more than that, Pompa said. It is an exchange among equals where incarcerated people and Temple students can interact, she said.
“The focus of this course is not on prisons. It’s on society,” Pompa said. Each class is composed of about 30 people – an equal number of students and prisoners. The group typically sits intermixed in a circle discussing a number of topics, including
the myths and realities of prison life and the psychology behind crime.
Inside-Out is now a national program and has trained 116 instructors in the past three years. These instructors, primarily from criminal justice and sociology departments in colleges and universities across the country, have implemented similar programs at their schools. Now professors from all fields want to participate in the program, Pompa said.
This semester, Oregon State University is one of the first on the West Coast to participate.
Initially, almost all of the students and prisoners who took the course were anxious about interacting with one another, Pompa said.
“The ‘Inside’ students are usually anxious about the Temple students judging them and that they’ll be intimidated by the students,” she said. But after the first couple of weeks, each group becomes comfortable and things become completely normal, Pompa added.
Students eventually form relationships with each other, but these relationships can never leave the classroom, since contact outside of class is prohibited.
Participants go by their first names only and are not allowed to disclose personal information, including the prisoners’ sentences.
Senior criminal justice and psychology double major Liz Pagonis feels like she is being processed and booked as a prisoner when she attends class every week.
“It is such a reality check,” said Pagonis,
adding that students must go through a metal detector and can only have a notebook and pen when entering the prison. At first, Pagonis said she was scared, but now she doesn’t feel threatened because she has discovered what the student-prisoners have to offer.
“It’s not traditional, but I’m learning more here than I’m learning in my other classes,” she said. But Pagonis said her father still worries about her safety and she calls him after every class session to tell him that she left the prison safely.
Student-prisoners are also largely impacted
by the program. Pompa said the program gives incarcerated participants confidence.
“Part of what happens is that [‘Inside’ students think], ‘Jeez, I’m really smart, I can keep up with these college kids. Maybe I should go on and get some education,’ and that really sheds some light on people’s lives,” she said. Angela Crafton is one of Inside-Out’s success stories. The former inmate at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center said participation in the program changed her life.
She realized that her offenses were progressively getting worse and that if she didn’t change, she could be in for a lot more prison time. While participating in the program, Crafton rediscovered her love for art and drawing. For a class project, she had to design the ideal women’s correctional facility. Everyone loved her drawing, she said.
When Crafton was released from prison,
she enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia and later transferred to Temple.
She graduated magna cum laude with a degree in art education and now teaches art in local prisons.
Crafton said she credits most of her success to Pompa and the program.
“It changed me, it keeps me focused,” she said. “This program means the world to me. It is such an incredible class and there is evidence that it works.”
Anthony Persiano, another former inmate
at PICC, also participated in the program,
saying he learned a lot about self-victimization.
“If it wasn’t for Lori and her class, I wouldn’t know what to do or have the answers I needed,” Persiano said. During his time in prison, Persiano took paralegal courses and employed what he learned toward appealing his life sentence.
“I was changing and evolving without even knowing what evolving meant,” he said.
And that’s what Pompa wants.
“What we’re doing essentially is sowing seeds of change, sowing seeds in people,” Pompa said.
LeAnne Matlach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.