Inside Out Prison Exchange Program pairs Amherst College students, Hampshire County inmates in educational experience

Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — The event was billed as a debate, but there was far more camaraderie than contention among the 15 students at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction — some inmates, some enrolled at Amherst College.

The students studied the topic — sexual violence: prevention, consent and the law — for the past four months as part of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, a Pennsylvania-based program in which Amherst participates. The program brings together college students and incarcerated men and women to learn as peers.

Martha Saxton, a professor of history and sexuality, women’s and gender studies at Amherst, has been teaching with the program for eight years. She said she selected this year’s course topic because the issue is something many people are interested in but one in which few are experts. She co-taught the class with Amherst artist-in-residence Wendy Ewald.

The students — whom she refers to as “inside students” for the incarcerated participants and “outside students” for those from Amherst — come into the program largely frightened about one another, she said.

“The magic of the program is they want to be the best people they can be for the other people in the group,” Saxton said.

The class met on Wednesdays, and each week she had her students break up into small groups, varying the group members each time. By the end of the course, each student had worked with every other one, she said. For confidentiality purposes, program participants use first names only.

All students who complete the class get a certificate and college credit from Amherst.

The class puts the incarcerated students “in a normal environment in which education is not humiliating or painful. They are not busted or at the bottom of the class and they love it — they do something positive,” Saxton said.

At the same time, the Amherst College students have a transformative experience.

“The friendships are valid and warm and real, and then they think about mass incarceration and look for the power to do something about it,” she said.

This is Saxton’s last semester with the Amherst program. It will continue during the spring semester with a course on Shakespeare taught by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst.

Not too late

For Ernest, a 49-year-old man from Springfield who has a year left to serve for an assault and battery conviction, joining the class was a way to see how well he could do at the college level. He had taken classes at Western Connecticut State University and Virginia State University, but never graduated.

“I’m so glad that I joined this class because I got to meet some great people and I just realized that it is not too late for me,” he said. “I can get my degree. This was my inspiration.”

During Wednesday’s debate, Ernest served as a group moderator for one of three panel discussions. Each person read an essay about laws regarding sexual violence, and Ernest’s was titled “Community Solutions and Alternatives to Criminalization.”

He laid out the problem of poverty leading to violence, citing a Police Executive Research Forum statistic that the poor economy has driven a 16 percent increase in domestic violence incidents in recent years. He said programs such as the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Houston are leaders in breaking that cycle by offering important services to former inmates.

“Effective reintegration programs for formerly incarcerated people should include health care, counseling, housing, substance abuse treatment, employment and business/career development,” he said. “Minorities with criminal records have a very hard time finding jobs at a competitive wage.”

During a question-and-answer period, Jonathan, an “outside” Amherst College student, commended Ernest. “I think it’s clear why we chose him as our moderator,” Jonathan said at the event.

Ernest said he was intimidated coming into the class. “This is the top liberal arts college in the country,” he said. “Seeing them, I know I have to be on my A-game.”

Prison rape

“Inside” student Philip, 33, of Springfield, who is halfway through an 18-month sentence for illegal possession of a firearm, said he joined the program because it gave him something constructive to do.

“As far as drug treatment, I’m not here for drugs,” Philip said. “When they told me Amherst College was doing a course I said, ‘I want to sign up.’ ”

When he learned the course would be about sexual violence, Philip reconsidered. Even though he said he has never had experience with sexual violence, he said it is a touchy subject.

“Sometimes jerks make stupid comments about sex,” he said. “But it was a subject we handled maturely.”

Philip has a 7-year-old son, and said he wants to take his credits and go to school.

Also a moderator of one of the three debate panels, Philip’s topic was the effectiveness of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). That law, signed by President Bush in 2003, helps female victims of sexual abuse report incidents without retaliation, gives access to forensic examinations to victims of both genders, and states that abusers will be investigated, prosecuted and terminated from employment if they are prison guards.

While prison rapes have not declined much, that is primarily because the law is not funded or adequately enforced, Philip argued.

“Protecting prisoners from sexual abuse remains a challenge in correctional facilities across the country,” he said. “Despite the apparent shortcomings of the PREA standards, if adopted and enforced they will have a significant impact on reducing prison rape and sexual abuse.”

Consent laws

Tylor, 22, an inmate from South Deerfield, was also a part of Philip’s panel discussion. His position was titled: “Consent Laws Can Change Sexual Culture.”

He was initially dubious about the idea of consent laws, some of which mandate that men and women receive verbal consent before engaging in sex, thinking such laws were not likely to be respected and would do little to protect women or men. After researching the topic, he said he was wrong.

“Obtaining affirmative consent gives power back to the words we use to communicate our wishes,” Tylor said. “A man may sag his pants, wear jewelry, speak slang, yet he would be indignant to learn that he has been stereotyped as a thug or a criminal. Similarly, a woman wearing tight clothes and acting flirtatious would feel objectified to learn that men only talk to her until they learn she is not ‘easy’ and does not intend to go further than flirting.”

The class began with nine inside students and nine outside students — but at the final class, only six of the inside students remained. That was not because of failure to do class work, but a result of discipline from prison staff.

“They can lose a privilege like this so easily,” Saxton said, saying that guards have priorities to keep order in the jail. She added that the Hampshire County Jail is progressive and has supported the Inside Out Program.

For Teresa, a 20-year-old Amherst College junior, the class led to friendships with the inside students.

“The class focused on a lot of discussion,” she said. “We got to hear about people’s life experience. All the people in the class came from different places.”

She also said jails should offer more such programs. “There are incredibly intelligent people behind bars that aren’t getting the education they need,” Teresa said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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