First “Inside-Out” prison-exchange course makes prisoners and students classmates
A USC Dornsife course on memoir writing gave undergraduates and incarcerated women a chance to work through the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image Source: iStock/proksima.)

First “Inside-Out” prison-exchange course makes prisoners and students classmates

Women incarcerated at the California Institution for Women joined a class on memoir writing alongside USC students, facilitating empathy and new perspectives on prison. [4 min read]
ByMargaret Crable

Roughly 50 miles east of USC’s University Park campus, some 1,500 prisoners serve time at the California Institution for Women. Above the exercise yard stand three large guard towers on which guards holding shotguns scan for escape attempts.

It’s a considerably different atmosphere than the university campus, where students usually zip freely to class on skateboards between green lawns. This spring semester, however, residents of the prison and USC undergraduates temporarily became classmates in the WRIT 320 course “Inside Out Writing Workshop” at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

It’s the first time a class using the Inside-Out model, in which prisoners and college students enroll in the same course, has been offered at USC.

Kate Levin, assistant professor (teaching) of writing, feels that the course empowered both prisoners and students at a crucial time. Many students were struggling through a challenging and isolating year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoners, trapped in hotbeds of COVID-19, were feeling powerless. Writing memoir was a chance to take back some control over their own narrative.

“Throughout our lives, we often find ourselves having narratives imposed on us, especially those in prison, but no one knows their own story and can tell their own story the way the writer themself can,” says Levin. “Writing about your life is a way of wresting control of it.”

Writing their way out

Course instructors Nik De Dominic (left) and Kate Levin. (Photo: Courtesy of Nik De Dominic and Kate Levin.)

Levin and Nik De Dominic, assistant professor (teaching) of writing, lead the Prison Education Project, in which USC students volunteer in college classes offered to prisoners. The two recently decided to offer a class where both the incarcerated and USC students could conduct coursework together, rather than just having students as passive observers.

“It creates a more democratic and equitable classroom if all of the participants are there as students,” says Levin. She and De Dominic took training in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange format then in the spring offered their WRIT 320 class, which focused on teaching autobiography.

Each USC student was partnered with one or two incarcerated students. Prisoners and USC students shared writing assignments over JPAY, the prison’s electronic messaging system, along with feedback and constructive criticism. To ensure safety, the students remained essentially anonymous to each other, knowing only each other’s first names.

At the end of the semester, all of the students submitted a final piece. Their stories were recently gathered and printed in a new book titled I’ll Write My Way Out, edited by Levin and De Demonic.

Changing hearts and minds

Students provide rave reviews of the writing course.

“Wednesdays became the day I looked forward to the most out of the week. We’d get to hop on a Zoom call and be as vulnerable, chaotic and introspective as we wanted to be,” says Jasmine Benitez, a business administration major at the USC Marshall School of Business.

I’ll Write My Way Out includes stories by PEP students. (Photo: Courtesy of Nik De Dominic and Kate Levin.)

The class helped Benitez process her personal anger towards the incarcerated. Growing up, some of her own friends and family had been sent to jail and she’d developed a sense of judgement towards those imprisoned.

“A lot of minority kids are taught to fear getting ‘with the wrong crowd’ and getting sent to jail, but no one talks about how the system is already built against us regardless of the crowd we are in,” says Benitez. “With the help of this class, I started to unlearn those misguided feelings of disappointment over my friends and family that weren’t as fortunate as I was to escape a system meant to capture and contain.”

Natalia Jun, a health and human sciences major at USC Dornsife, joined the class after a positive experience with Levin. She’d taken a WRIT 150 course with her and had enjoyed it so much that when she heard about Levin’s WRIT 320 course, she quickly registered.

Students in the class formed strong bonds, says Jun, and the comfortable atmosphere allowed them to open up about their own lives in an authentic way.

“My most memorable moment was when one of my classmates shared a romantic piece he wrote,” she says. “We all fell in love with the story — and then he revealed that the person he was writing about was another classmate.”

She’s become passionate about prison reform after her experience in the class. She watched her writing partner struggle to complete assignments in the small amount of time she was allowed each week on the JPAY kiosk, which made Jun realize how difficult it must be for the woman to send messages to loved ones.

“I know I am changed from the person I was when I began this class,” says Jun.