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Inside “Inside Voices”: Where students, faculty, and those formerly incarcerated collaborate as equals

    By Zenon Sommers, Dr. Paul Draus, Dr. Anna Müller, Penny Kane, Isabella Martincic, Gonza Lulika, Natalie Albrecht, and Maria Tarahkovsky

    Zenon Sommers

    The Inside-Out Prison Exchange (CRJ/SOC/WGST 476/HONS 400) is a multidisciplinary class offered in the fall and winter semesters at UM-Dearborn. Typically, the class consists of 15 “inside” (incarcerated) students and 15 “outside” (university) students. The class takes place in Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township, MI, about 45 minutes northeast of UM-Dearborn’s campus.

    Every semester’s Inside Out course is unique. This semester, staffing issues at Macomb caused them to deny us entry to the facility. As such, our course has taken a particularly eclectic format. We meet in the Mardigian Library’s Ford Collaboratory, where two faculty members, 18 students, and a host of formerly incarcerated guest professors comprise our class, sitting together in a circle of diverse ideas and experiences. We were only able to exchange a few sets of letters with the Theory Group, the currently incarcerated individuals who would normally participate as inside students.

    Alongside the readings, in-class discussions, and reflection papers, each student participates in one of four group projects. One is an art show to celebrate and sell our inside students’ artwork, with the proceeds going to charity. Another is a chamber music performance of a musical piece and accompanying poem that were written to bring awareness and attention to individuals sentenced to life in prison as juveniles. There is also a group arranging a barbecue dinner where plainclothes police officers will bond with community members and then reveal themselves, with the goal of showing both police and the community that they aren’t as different as they might think. Finally, another group project focuses on bringing awareness to the campus community of issues related to incarceration, including a series of podcast interviews with formerly incarcerated guests and efforts to promote the other group projects.

    Below, you will find accounts from our faculty, one of our formerly incarcerated guest professors, and one student representative from each of the group projects.

    Professor Paul Draus, Ph.D.

    I see the Inside-Out Prison Exchange class as a kind of controlled accident, a form of wabi-sabi. This Japanese concept, rooted in Buddhist philosophy, celebrates the beauty of imperfection and transience. Inside-Out at its best is always incomplete, open-ended and becoming; a communal balancing act where the energies unleashed in class discussions and exercises are perpetually pushing against the limits of the formal course structure. In the prison setting, the opposing polarities of experiences and expectations held by the inside and outside students generate an electric field of tension. The professor in this situation is more of a facilitator, or a circus ringleader, than an authoritative imparter of knowledge. This can be both scary and liberating.

    As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down access to the prison system for outside volunteers, which is how the Department of Corrections classifies university faculty and students, we had to adapt by bringing formerly incarcerated men and women, now “outside” of prison, “inside” the University to lead some of these discussions. At the same time, we sought to bring the voices of those still inside prisons to life for the class by reading their poetry, sharing their art, or hearing from their family members. From this kaleidoscopic collision of perspectives, shared insights emerge. Some of these are transformative, like the epiphanies emerging from direct observation in a haiku. Though professors get to bask in the glow, the fire is ignited by the chemistry of the group.

    Professor Ana Müller, Ph.D.

    The Inside Out Prison Exchange class brings together two very different worlds: that of our students and that of men incarcerated at Macomb Correctional Facility. It brings together a world that symbolizes freedom (i.e., the university) and a world where every thought and movement is constrained and censored; a world that is an antithesis of freedom (i.e., prison). But the COVID-19 pandemic put an unfortunate pause on our prison classes. We have not been able to go inside for the last two years. Paul Draus, the backbone of the program on our campus, developed a new model for this class that is based on a dialogue between our students and formerly incarcerated men and women who are presented to the class as guest professors.

    This year, I had a chance to teach this class alongside Paul following the model he developed. As we would in a typical Inside Out course, we sit in a circle, creating a space to learn together. We, university professors, take on the role of facilitators rather than professors. We provide the space, help structure it, perhaps even pose questions and initiate discussions—but the way the class develops is largely stirred by the students and the way they approach their class projects.

    Teaching and learning require constant renewal of mind, heart, and spirit. “Intellect, emotion, and spirit depend on one another for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best,” as Parker J. Palmer said in The Courage to Teach (2). The intersection of intellect, emotion, and spirit is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Inside Out. Our mind, emotions, and various senses are constantly engaged in this class. If someone happens to stop by the Ford Collaboratory on a Wednesday evening, you would see us listening to music with our eyes closed, dancing, communicating without words, or making colorful collages out of scrap papers. We would listen to poetry and create it. We would laugh (sometimes because we were told to laugh – laughter yoga), but we would also get upset when in front of us, marked on the floor, we see a silhouette of a solitary confinement cell and hear a man tell of his twelve years inside one (Lacino Hamilton). What’s special about Inside Out is the level it engages both our emotions and intellect while challenging traditional ways of learning.

    We learn a lot from each other, but by creating colorful name tags and playing seemingly silly exercises, we create a small distinct community. In one of our last classes, we discussed what constitutes a good community. Friendships did not appear on the list we created, but I think we all had that in mind as well. An appreciation and respect for each other should be at the heart of this class.

    There is an interesting text by Hannah Arendt about another German philosopher, where Arendt wrote: “The Greeks called this humanness which is achieved in the discourse of friendship philanthropia, ‘love of man’ since it manifests itself in a readiness to share the world with other man.” (Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 25) Sharing means being in a dialogue—the essence of any friendship—dynamically sharing and constantly (re)creating the world together. Recognizing that the presence of another human being makes us richer, but the absence impoverishes us. Humanity is a form of fraternity that is built and maintained by a dialogue that strengthens us as individuals and a community. And hopefully each one of us recognizes that the Inside Out experience offers that lesson.

    Guest Professor Penny Kane

    This semester’s Inside Out class has blown me away! In my four years at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, this class stands out as one of the best. Professors Draus and Muller have created a real community for these brilliant students. Although this is the third Inside Out class I have participated in on campus, I had not planned to participate this semester. After I read some of my poetry aloud during the second class, the professors asked me to participate weekly. Of course, I was honored to do so.

    In the fall of 2020, I was a student in Dr. Draus’s Inside Out class, the first during the pandemic. I decided to take it because it would be held online and not going into the Macomb facility. I really wanted to take this class, but as a formerly incarcerated student, I did not think the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) would approve entering a prison facility. With an already full course schedule, I jumped on enrolling in it. I noticed right away that all the formerly incarcerated were all men! That is who Professors Draus and Müller knew from years of going into the Macomb Correctional Facility, which is exclusively male. As a formerly incarcerated woman UM-Dearborn student, I bring a unique perspective to the class that men cannot. Because the MDOC makes almost no consideration for women, I call them the ugly stepchildren of the MDOC. It is interesting to hear the male perspective during class, often very different from my own.

    The dialogue circles are amazing, filled with laughter and tears. It is often reminiscent of a Hippie Love-in, “Snaps” and all. It feels like a support group for myself and the other formerly incarcerated. This class mostly honors students who ask such impressive and thought-provoking questions of the formerly incarcerated. During my prison time, I could not imagine that anyone cared. Professors Müller and Draus are skilled at extracting the teachable moments from the dialogue and relating it to the course material. Each of the group projects is impressive and executed to the nines!

    Art Group: Bella Martincic

    I truthfully signed up for the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program without any real idea about what it was, simply because it sounded cool. This is ironic to look back on now as it has become one of the most memorable and valuable classes and experiences I have had in my time at UM-Dearborn. What makes this experience so valuable has been meeting so many new people and hearing from inside perspectives that allow us to engage in constructive conversations about incarceration and the justice system. Throughout the semester, we have read excerpts, listened to guests, and heard directly from voices who are currently and have formerly been incarcerated. These discussions have been extremely eye-opening and thought-provoking into not only the justice system in Michigan but also in the immediate communities surrounding Dearborn in Metro Detroit.

    This class has also allowed students to apply the knowledge we have learned and actively get involved through a series of community-centered projects. The project that I have been fortunate to work on is the Inside Voices Art Show. The art being featured at the upcoming show was created and donated to us specifically by the men in the Theory Group from the Macomb County Correctional Facility, with whom we have had correspondence to throughout the duration of this class. Poetry will also be read on opening night by the justice- impacted individuals who have worked with us throughout the semester and shared their stories with us.

    Because of these connections, this event is very special and personal to us as a class and to the surrounding community. The Inside Voices Art Show is an opportunity to uplift the voices of justice impacted individuals and share these unique perspectives that we have gained with the rest of the Metro Detroit community. Moreover, the proceeds from the donated art will be given to the Youth Justice Fund—an organization run by Professor Aaron Kinzel, who was incarcerated himself and has been working with us throughout the class. The Youth Justice Fund helps justice-impacted individuals to successfully reenter society as adults in the area. Overall, this event is a team effort that is being put together by the community, for the community, that will invoke laughter, tears and promote healing for its members. To view the art and learn, click here. To purchase prints and other merchandise, click here.

    Music Group: Gonza Lulika

    As somebody who considers himself a music lover, the idea of working with people who were going to tell their stories through song greatly animated me. That is why when I was told about a project we had the opportunity to work with, that would allow former juvenile lifers (an individual convicted of a crime that carried a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole as a juvenile) to have their stories told, I jumped at the opportunity.

    A few days ago, the Imani Winds, a Grammy-nominated wind quintet, performed a locally written piece called Fallen Petals of Nameless Flowers. Written by former juvenile offenders in Michigan, it talks about the experiences of those who were incarcerated as children, by Michigan’s justice system, and were given life sentences by the courts. Children who weren’t fully capable of forming their own choices, given the harshest possible sentences by courts, without any ability to reform themselves.

    I was fortunate enough to work with some other members of the UM-Dearborn Honors Program on the logistics of this program, as the show was put on by Chamber Music Detroit. We helped primarily with the promotion of this event, to help these stories get told. But being able to witness this event was certainly something that I found to be extremely powerful. The emotions expressed through the performance were raw; the analogies, intention. True and intense stories were told from the heart. We were offered an insight into the minds of men and women, from way back when they were children, when they made the singular mistake that would define them for the rest of their lives. To view a recording of the performance, click here.

    Barbecue Group: Maria Tarahkovsky

    Through the honors program and honors 400 seminar, I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity of working with individuals and groups through metro-Detroit on a semester project. This project was geared towards the community and addresses an issue that’s within it pertaining to the prison system and general criminal justice system. My group’s project was a community BBQ event with the main idea and reasoning being a secret until after.

    I had the honor and pleasure of working alongside a few of my Honors 400 classmates, my honors professors Dr. Paul Draus and Dr. Anna Müller, and Darryl Woods in hosting an event through Better Together; founded by Darryl Woods, Better Together is an initiative to unify and bring police and community through a community event with a BBQ. Everyone is to wear civilian clothing and not to reveal whether they are an activist, formerly incarcerated, student, or a police officer. The objective is for people to talk, mingle, and eat food for a while and then a conversation is facilitated about policing and issues involving it. Darryl bounces the conversation and responses from person to person so people can express their stories, concerns, and police can listen and respond. The end goal is to walk away with better understanding and a more open mind for both sides of the issues discussed.

    There were personal stories that brought up topics such as child abuse, racial profiling, incarceration, reform of policing, and bias training. I was listening to the cops taking people’s personal experiences into account in their responses to what they’re doing to be better, and it was interesting to see the positive and intriguing range of empathy among them. The Inkster police chief and two youth community members talked about their many conversations that were open and honest about policing and its relationship with them and their community. I could tell the chief’s heart broke with some of the stories shared. The rest of Inkseter’s, Dearborn’s, and Dearborn’s campus departments expressed similar reactions as well. That prompted my mind to open more regarding my view on police, as this was the first time I’ve personally seen a cop, or multiple cops, react in front of me with sorrow due to the systemic cruelty those in their uniform perpetrate. It was important that influential and specific individuals were RSVP’d, and all of us in our group were really excited about it. I felt motivated every class session, and felt my passion for reform and justice strengthening even more.

    On top of that, the characters of my classmates, guests, and professors made the classroom space fun and safe for learning and feeling vulnerable for certain topics covered. Those stories, expressed through art, music, poetry, writing, events, build a class like this into an enigma, no matter the range of influence. Education, patience, willingness to keep an open mind, willingness to be questioned or criticized: they are all great steps towards a better society. Personally, I’ve had a wonderful experience in class and with the projects and am looking forward to keeping in touch with everyone I’ve met and gotten to know. I am honored to be included in a collective that shares an incredible mind around how we should treat others, learn, and grow. I believe that applying knowledge and strength in following through with action, inspiration, and using creative channels we love to do so is one of the purest keys to success.

    Campus Awareness Group: Natalie Albrecht

    The Inside Out program initially caught my attention because of the way it engaged with a topic I knew little about: incarceration. A class where you interact with and learn from people about what affects them directly makes a subject have so much more meaning. It becomes less of a classroom labor and more of a mission to hear others and uplift their message. The Campus Awareness Group that I joined had the assignment of involving and informing the greater student body at the University of Michigan-Dearborn on incarceration. To achieve this, we decided to create a podcast and a website to host it, which doubled as a hub of information and links for other events students in the course were helping put on.

    We played to our own experiences and strengths to make this project a success. Many of us had previous experiences working with podcasts, which helped us interview, record, and edit audio to piece together a compelling story incorporating insights from our many guests. We also were able to take advantage of our group’s artistic talents and skill in website design to create a functional site with graphics. We sent out a survey to get a feel for campus knowledge and attitude surrounding prisons. Most importantly, we had a network of formerly incarcerated individuals and people who worked with them that were easily accessible. Each interview was unique and enlightening. We heard several stories on prison and reintegration, as well as the Inside Out program, as well as getting a legal perspective on criminal charges pertaining to juvenile life, a topic of interest in Michigan.

    Our process was one that involved immense trust. Trust in each other to complete work on our prospective elements, trust that other groups would collaborate with us, trust in our interviewees to meet with us and share their stories and wisdom, and finally, a trust that, in the end, we will have an audience of people willing to listen. Ignorance is what allows so many mistreatments to persist, so don’t stop looking. Don’t stop listening, and maybe we will be able to make a positive change to the state of the prison system of today. To learn more about the campus awareness group’s efforts, click here.