Changing society from behind bars

Brenda Chaney
Senior Lecturer, Sociology


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Through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, sociology lecturer Brenda Chaney is doing more than teaching students about social issues around the world — she's helping them overcome their own stereotypes to achieve social change.


As a senior lecturer in sociology at Ohio State, I enjoy discovering new projects that perfectly mesh my academic background (criminology and education) and personal interests (prisons and how people evolve). Case in point: A few years ago, I read an article about the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a partnership between colleges, universities and correctional institutions that brings together men and women to study as peers behind prison walls.

The program creates opportunities for both college students (Outsiders) and the incarcerated (Insiders) to participate in transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue. I knew right away this was something I wanted to do. In 2011, I went through six days of intense training to become an instructor with the Inside-Out program.

Inside-Out in Marion

Ohio State Marion, where I primarily teach, was very supportive of my wish to start an Inside-Out class. I was awarded a development grant to help pay for my training at the former Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit , where we focused on overcoming preconceptions and group facilitation. 

Following my training, I met with the warden at the Ohio Reformatory for Women to discuss the class I was planning. With her enthusiastic support, we decided not to focus the class on criminal justice issues, but instead to choose a different topic that would have the same elements of social justice and change. 

Ultimately, I chose globalization. My goal was to help students develop a global sociological imagination so they would recognize their links to the rest of the world.

Dispelling stereotypes

Every spring semester, I teach a new Inside-Out class comprised of about 15 current Ohio State students and 20 students from the Ohio Reformatory for Women. The Inside students must have a high school diploma or their GED, plus a good discipline record, to participate in the class. 

Over the past few years, I have found that Ohio State students often come into the class viewing prisoners through the lens of media-perpetuated stereotypes. Likewise, I have learned that prisoners often harbor misconceptions about college students. For example, one Insider told me she thought all Ohio State students would be spoiled rich kids. 

"During our sociology class the first couple of weeks, the Inside students and Outside students all seemed a little shy around each other. None of us really knew what to expect. The Outside students, I am sure, were scared coming into a prison not knowing if we are violent offenders or what we are here for. The Insiders was worried that we would be judged and talked about badly by the Outsiders because we are in prison." — Jackie, Inside student

Inside-Out is an opportunity for both groups to face their misconceptions and look at each other simply as students who are interested in learning and not as "the other."

Focus on social justice

During class, we regularly read about and discuss topics that range from discrimination and the unequal treatment of people based on race and ethnicity to power differences, the unfair treatment of women and children, lack of access to health care and education, unfair working conditions and the list goes on.

An Inside-Out class graduation, 2012.

Students read books like Kelsey Timmerman’s Where am I Wearing? which reinforces the message that we cannot truly achieve social justice until we understand what it is that needs to be changed. We also watch a variety of movies on global social issues like water shortages, child labor, the mistreatment of women, political corruption and environmental degradation. 

One student commented, rightfully so, that the class should offer anti-depressants. But the social conditions in developing nations are so depressing it would be a disservice — especially in a class that values honesty — to present the problems any other way. 

These movies give us a starting place for discussions on how to solve problems. For example, most students agree that child labor is wrong, but what if child labor keeps a family from starving? 

Solutions are not as simple as they sometimes appear.

Common ground

Each week, the students work together to solve problems during group exercises, which are essential to the overall success of the class.

At the start of each semester, most of the students in my class are uncertain about what to expect. They worry about what stereotypes members of the other group may have about them. But after just a few classes, in which they have come together to tackle complex sociological problems, they forget all about their preconceptions. 

Outsiders Vicki (left) and Cynthia (right) partner with Insiders during a 2014 class session.

At the end of each semester, the students write final reflection papers tying together what they have learned about globalization, about themselves and about others. A common theme in these papers is the student's realization that he or she possessed plenty of unfounded stereotypes — about each other and about globalization — that the class helped to dispel.

"Throughout the last couple of months, I have really enjoyed being involved in the Inside-Out class. I am sad to have to move on. Overall, I am not sure what the best part was for me. I think I really enjoyed the simple fact that I got to interact with Outside students and learn with them." — An Inside student

I am proud to say that our students often like this experience so much they continue to meet informally during the summer to talk about political and social topics or to read and discuss books. At this point, they are no longer Insiders and Outsiders, but a group of students who took a class together and liked the experience so much they don’t want it to end.

In addition to the Inside-Out class at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Ohio State Newark also offers the program through the Southeastern Correctional Institution in Lancaster. For more information on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, please visit: http://www.insideoutcenter.org/

Header image: An Inside-Out class graduation, 2014.


About the author

Brenda Chaney
Brenda Chaney - chaney.2@osu.edu
Senior Lecturer, Sociology

Brenda Chaney is a senior lecturer in sociology at The Ohio State University. She leads OSU-Marion's Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, teaching Sociology 2211: Issues in Globalization to groups of prison inmates and Ohio State students.

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