This is the first in a series of reports from campus newspapers and blogs, featuring honors news as the students see it. We chose the story below because, in addition to being an excellence piece of journalism, it also shows how honors innovations can enrich the lives of honors students, improve the communities in which they live, and serve as pilot programs that can be expanded to include non-honors students as well.
Today’s post is from the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon. This truly outstanding news feature story about students from Clark Honors College attending prison classes with inmates is by staff writer Emily Schiola. Congratulations to her, and to Clark Honors for participating in such an interesting and valuable program.
By Emily Schiola
Published March 1, 2012
University Student David Liggins, a former Oregon State Penitentiary inmate, is now in his second term at the University of Oregon studying psychology. Liggins, 35, who was incarcerated for 14 years, participated in the Inside Out program that pairs inmates and University students in college level courses.
“The program helps guys get out of that institutional mode,” said Liggins, who credits the program for keeping him inspired to continue his education.
Every week, 24 students climb a long staircase and enter a small room in the Oregon State Penitentiary filled with bookcases and chairs. Light from a small window shines on the pale yellow walls, casting rectangular shadows throughout the room. They discuss “Crime and Punishment.”
The course is part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and at the end of the three-hour class, 12 students pass a row of bars and security checks to board a bus headed home. For the other 12, they already are home.
A year ago, David Liggins was one of those students and would’ve returned to his cell to begin reading for the next class. Today, he is a student at the University and an intern for the program.
Liggins appeared in front of ASUO Senate last fall seeking a grant for an expansion of the program. The request was granted last week — approving $20,000 in additional funding.
“This program made me want to get away from being institutionalized,” Liggins says.
Since its birth in 2007, the program has sent classes of roughly a dozen students in the Clark Honors College into the Oregon State Penitentiary to take a class with inmates. Class topics have ranged from literature to sociology. The $20,000 expansion approved last week will now allow the program to become available for all students at the University, not only honors students.
Liggins says he owes a lot of his success to the Inside-Out Program, which sends university students, or “outside students,” into a prison to take a class with inmates who are called “inside students.” It is offered at over 120 universities in 37 states across the country.
One of his favorite classes was a literature class about ethics and morals with one of the program’s pioneers, University professor Steven Shankman.
Shankman was the first professor from the University to teach a class with the program. One of his responsibilities was interviewing the inside students.
“Those guys were so hungry for education,” Shankman said. “Their minds are so open, and their motives are so pure.”
Most classes in the program were criminal justice courses, but Shankman thought a literature and ethics class could be just as impacting.
“We were forced to meet ethics and morals head on and question ourselves,” Liggins said. “It is really touching to tie life with that experience.”
Shankman explained that it was the inside students who were the most nervous to participate in the class.
“Prison is not very good for self-esteem,” he said. “But once they saw how welcoming and nonjudgmental the outside students were, things really changed.”
Liggins spoke to how refreshing it was to see the University students once a week. “It is very easy to become isolated,” he said. “To see faces of people who are excited about the future brings fresh life.”
He also talked about the effect the program has on people who are going to be in prison for the rest of their lives.
“For the ‘lifers’ it means so much to them,” Liggins said. “There is a lack of life in there, and to get the chance to learn with people who are so hopeful is very touching.”
Liggins is spending his time completing his second term as a psychology major and taking care of his teenage daughter. He is committed to gaining an education and inspiring other students like himself.
He hopes to someday work with children of incarcerated parents. Liggins said children often follow in their parents’ footsteps, and he wants to work to prevent that.
“It is something that is very dear to my heart because I’m a single parent,” he said.
Liggins hopes the grant from the DFC will make it possible to touch more lives. ASUO Chief of Staff and former Inside-Out Program participant Kerry Snodgrass is overjoyed with the expansion.
“This has been a huge initiative of the ASUO Executive,” she said. “Ben and Katie started working on it as soon as they got into office.”
Snodgrass described the experience as sobering and said it challenged her preconceived ideas about inmates.
“Being in that space with so many students who are so excited to receive an education just made me value my education so much more,” Snodgrass said. “It makes me want to fight harder for education in this state.”
With this money, the program also plans to send interested faculty members to a week-long training in Pennsylvania. It includes courses on teaching methods and philosophies as well as courses in safety.
“It is really important to be aware of students’ safety,” Northwest Regional Program assistant for Inside-Out Katie Dwyer said. “This is not only physical safety, but emotional safety as well.”
Dwyer was part of the first class offered in 2007 when she was only a freshman. She said she soon realized the importance of the program and has been involved ever since.
“If you are the kind of student hoping for more intensity of conversation, then this is an experience like no other,” she said. “People’s opinions and lives are very present during the class.”
Classes will be offered to all University students who are accepted next winter term. The number of classes depends on department interest and is not known at this time.
Liggins encourages anyone who gets the chance to take the class. He says the program changed his life.
“This program gives you a voice on the inside,” Liggins said. “It makes you feel like a human again.”