Prisoners and undergraduates are classmates in seminar on race, inequality and education

CWRU students sitting alongside Lorain County Correctional Institute inmates
CWRU students learn alongside inmates at the Lorain Correctional Institute. All photos by Daniel Robison.

After walking through a prison yard chaperoned by corrections officers, a group of Case Western Reserve University students entered a cinderblock chapel to join their classmates—inmates at the Lorain Correctional Institution (LorCI).

Together, they comprise the student body of “The Impact of Race, Class and Education: A Dialogue on Current Issues,” a SAGES course taught by Ben Sperry and Steve Pinkerton, where university students and their incarcerated counterparts read the same books, complete the same assignments and attend classes together by teleconference and in person.

“Students from these two Northeast Ohio institutions are reaching across the divide,” said Sperry, who has a PhD in history from Case Western Reserve, “to learn from each other and find a common humanity—even if their circumstances, educations and opportunities are so very different.”

Learning from each other

CWRU students learning alongside Lorain County Correctional Institute inmates

Over coffee and cookies, the class of 24—roughly half LorCI inmates, half university students—opened up over icebreakers: describing their perfect meals, life-changing books and fond childhood memories.

“I thought I was Michael Jackson,” said an inmate, mimicking a dance move, to the laughter of his group. “Once I had that white glove.”

Breaking into larger groups, the students responded to prompts, discussing racism, mass incarceration, history and the Black Lives Matter movement. All students were invited to share memories of being discriminated against, racist attitudes present in their families and even their own prejudices.

Students flipped to passages in their course texts—books such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Worse Than Slavery by David Oshinsky. Inmates linked their own lives, crimes and punishments to historical forces, including slavery and racial segregation.

While these class visits—early on a Saturday morning, twice during the semester—are voluntary for both groups of students, absences are few.

“Face-to-face, these issues become much more real,” said Matthew Hausladen, a sophomore polymer engineering student from Syracuse, N.Y. “You can only get so far with books and writing. The inmates are teachers, in a way.”

Sperry created the class at LorCI in the fall of 2014 after training at the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University in Philadelphia. Instructors from around the country learn how to run seminars where college students and inmates are peers, while studying subject matter that places their lives in a larger societal framework.

“This is out-of-the-box for us,” said Carl Mansfield, LorCI’s coordinator of programming, which includes GED classes and apprenticeships. The SAGES partnership is “unlike anything that’s been done here before.”

The opportunity to enroll in a college-level course (without official university credit) created a strong demand among inmates at this 1,300-bed, medium-security prison in Grafton, Ohio, 30 miles southwest of Cleveland.

“A lot of the subject matter hits home with [our prisoners],” said Mansfield. “When they’re learning and challenging themselves and looking forward, they’re not thinking of doing something negative.

“It helps them feel normal.”

The heart of the class

Inmate in the foreground with CWRU students talking to others in the background

As class came to a close, Ronnie, an inmate in the midst of 43 years of incarceration, offered a final word: “I never thought I could speak in front of a group,” he said, holding back tears. “To be able to open up with all of you, it means a lot.”

University students boarded the bus back to campus, while inmates were strip-searched—a common practice before and after meeting with the public—before heading to their cells.

For safety, inmates and university students agreed to cut all communication at the end of the semester.

“I was surprised how honest the inmates were about themselves and not just blaming others or racism [for their incarceration],” said Anna Trott-Herdrich, a sophomore civil engineering major from New York City. “This experience has made me more aware of what people have faced in their lives. I’ll carry that with me after the semester is over.”

For Sperry, identifying the struggle of others is at the heart of his class—and gives deeper meaning to issues of race, inequality and justice.

“Creating that understanding in students—to see the human in someone else—that’s as good as it gets,” said Sperry, who has taught in prisons, community centers, public schools and universities.

“The class is probably the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in education.”