DePaul students and prison inmates learn together

Dan Baron
October 07, 2015

Walking through the doors of Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Illinois is not the typical university experience for either DePaul students or the inmates who are their peers. Like many service-learning experiences, however, the theme of "transformation" emerges at Stateville in dynamic and powerful ways. Through a course involving the Inside-Out program, DePaul students and the students on the inside of the prison learn together about restorative justice. 

The course, part of the national Inside-Out program based at Temple University in Philadelphia, has been offered more than half a dozen times by DePaul. The experience is far removed from traditional service learning courses where students are guided in a sense to provide a service within a community. Aligned with the Steans Center's philosophy of social justice and respect for the human dignity of all, Inside-Out is centered on reciprocity through the exchange and mobilization of knowledge. The focus is not on a unidirectional transfer of resources, but on helping students - inside and out - reach their full capacity as human beings.

"The point is that this is a real, unique and valuable experience for all who are involved," says Kimberly Moe, a professor in the Department of Philosophy who has taught the course over consecutive years. "DePaul students and men inside Stateville have a chance to broaden their horizons."

Even the design of the prison has an impact on the learning experience. The design is referred to as a "Panopticon" - a type of structure designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The architecture allows a single guard to observe all inmates of the institution.  Meanwhile, inmates do not know when they are being watched.

"For students to go through this experience, it's quite profound," says Jacqueline Lazú, associate professor of Modern Languages and former director of the Community Service Studies program. Lazú administers Inside-Out for DePaul through the Community Service Studies minor, a partnership between the Steans Center and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. "What jumps out, I think, is that this kind of course takes us out of our comfort zone," she says.

Courses in the program focus on restorative justice and include topics such as the court system and gender and identity. In addition to Professor Moe, during the past year, Political Science Professor Christina Rivers and John Ziegler, director of the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships at the Steans Center, joined the faculty of the Inside-Out program. Lazú hopes to see more and more DePaul faculty come onboard as the curriculum expands.

Students - inside and out

For DePaul students, the Inside-Out experience may be like no other they have at the university. They travel to the prison on the day of a class session and join the inmates to learn together.

"I was really blown away," says Simone Ciobotaru, a student pursuing a degree in psychology with a minor in philosophy. Ciobotaru was especially struck by the commitment made by the men who live at Stateville. "I admit, my responses to the material were not as elaborate as theirs. Some reread books three times."

Class discussions, she says, allowed for a discussion of specific assignments while also encouraging reflections from people who directly experience prison life. One reading of Aristotle, Ciobotaru says, focused on what it means to be a good person.

Logan Breitbart, a senior studying philosophy, says taking a peace, justice and conflict studies course and having a family member who was incarcerated led him to enroll in the Inside-Out program. He recalls his first view of Stateville.

"Within the confines of a giant square created by concrete walls, it looks like a campus. Inside, it's worn and old, and smells like cleaning agents," he says. "But there's an earnestness about the guys inside that you can't deny. In fact, you want to reciprocate. That's also a testament to the professor."

For Lazú, the course is not really about serving others but more about transforming lives of faculty and students on the inside and out.

"To me this is a course that has DePaul written all over it," she notes. "We talk a lot about human dignity and social justice at the university. This is one of those academic spaces where these values are truly lived out both during the course and beyond."

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