Amherst students and Hampshire County inmates share an educational experience unlike any other

By Rachel Rogol
January 6, 2016

Inside Out prison exchange

Amherst students Sylvia Hickman ’16 and Teresa Frenzel ’17 with inside students Phillip and Tyler, chatting after their last class together at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction

Last semester, Sylvia Hickman ’16 enrolled in the Amherst course “Equality and Violence,” which met every week at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections in Northampton, Mass.

Organized as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, the course brought 10 Amherst and Hampshire College undergraduates (“outside students”) and eight incarcerated men (“inside students”) together as peers. The course focused on gender, racial and class inequality, and how these disparities are linked to violence and sexual assault on college campuses, in prisons and in the wider world. 

Hickman, an American studies major, knew she wanted to take an Inside-Out course after hearing about the program from classmates. Studying and learning alongside the inmates, she says, was an unforgettable experience. “I knew about the issues,” Hickman says, “but actually getting the chance to talk to the guys put faces to the issues and made them more real.”

Amherst′s Martha Saxton, professor of history and sexuality, women′s and gender studies, and Wendy Ewald, visiting artist-in-residence, co-taught the course with visiting artist Harrell Fletcher, professor of art and social practice at Portland State University's School of Art and Design. Saxton says the main intent was to encourage students to think about ways to improve issues surrounding sexual violence and “whether criminalization is the answer.”

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This 20-page document published by the class includes the students' essays and collaborative photographs.

Throughout the 12-week course, the students worked on a series of projects designed to strengthen their understanding of sexual violence, prevention and consent laws, as well as social art practice and its relation to issues of power.

Each student wrote an essay evaluating laws and other ways in which society treats issues regarding sexual and domestic violence, which served as a basis for a culminating debate that took place at the jail on the last day of class.

To illustrate the essays, Ewald and the students set up an impromptu studio and took photographs in the exercise yard of the jail. The photos were on display at the culminating debate and accompanied the students' essays in a publication created by the students.

As a result of projects like these, Saxton, who has taught courses at the Hampshire County Jail since 2007, says the outside students often speak of the experience as transformational. Inside students, she says, often discover “skills they didn’t know they had, and are rewarded for it." The success leads many of the inside students to take additional college courses and find jobs after their release. 

More about the Inside-Out Program

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program began in 1997 at Philadelphia’s Temple University and has become a staple of social and criminal justice education at colleges nationwide. Amherst has participated since 2005, offering one course per semester that meets weekly at the Hampshire County Jail. 

The jail—roughly 10 miles southwest of the Amherst campus—focuses on rehabilitation and education for many of its inmates, with classes on everything from Spanish to GED preparation. The jail selects eligible students for each Amherst course.

More than a dozen Amherst professors in various disciplines have taught courses at the jail. This spring, Professor Ilan Stavans teaches “Shakespeare in Prison,” in which inside and outside students will read and stage the late playwright’s work together. 

Additional Coverage

Photos from the class debate, held at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction on Dec. 16:

Inside Out prison exchange

Inside Out prison exchange

Inside Out prison exchange

Inside Out prison exchange