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Class in Prison

Pete Springer/OPB

This Monday, the Oregon State Penitentiary was locked down because multiple fights broke out between inmates. Prison guards used chemical spray and fired warning shots to bring order back. When I spoke with Philip Scott Cannon on Tuesday — as a reminder, he spent 11 years in prison for murder then his conviction was overturned and he was released — he explained that lock-downs are fairly usual. He said sometimes a fight breaks out in one part of the prison — the “chow hall” for instance. The prison staff rush there to break up the fight, only to leave the other end of the penitentiary virtually unattended. This can sometimes create a space where another, bigger, sometimes preplanned fight can break out.

Now, this isn’t necessarily what happened to cause Monday’s lock-down, but it does offer a great “insider” perspective of what happens inside prison walls.

This perspective is exactly what college students hope to gain when they participate in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. It’s a national program that was initially brought to the west coast in 2007 by Michelle Inderbitzin, an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State University, along with professors from the University of Oregon and Portland State University. For one or two semesters a year, Indertitzin brings about 15 students to maximum-security prison, once a week, to learn with about the same number of “inside” students. Together they read, talk about their lives, and try to gain a common understanding and respect for each other. Slightly different versions of the program are also offered at the University of Oregon and Portland State University.

In my conversation with Phillip Scott Cannon he described his most moving experience from when he took the class. He said he remembers the moment when he broke it to the OSU students that 12 of the 15 guys they were taking class with were in for murder. It was their “ah-ha” moment. They were dealing with the worst of the worst. He said the moment was “sobering.”

The fights in the prison on Monday led to the cancellation of the last Inside-Out class of the term. But we’re gathering some of the students, and some ex-convicts, together to talk about the program and to offer some “inside” and “outside” perspectives.

After our broadcast we asked the Inside-Out class, “what did we miss?” Check out the extended conversation about the connections made between the students in the program.

What do you want to know about life in prison? If you took part in the Inside-Out program, from either side, what did you learn?

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