Columnist Razvan Sibii: When officers, incarcerated study together

  • Minimum Security building at Hampshire County Jail. Gazette file photo

Published: 12/14/2020 10:02:47 AM



A few years ago, I attended a training in Chicago for college professors who wanted to teach in prisons. I had already co-taught a journalism course in Hampshire County Jail to a mixed crowd of UMass students and incarcerated men, and was there to learn how Inside-Out, the largest network of “college behind bars” people, did it.

I didn’t need any convincing that having college students and incarcerated individuals study together would puncture the stereotypes each group had about the other (“people in prison are violent, martyrs, cool”/“college kids are spoiled, immature”), but I appreciated the wealth of teaching strategies, discussion prompts and logistics tips the Inside-Out people had to offer.

At one point, Lori Pompa, Inside-Out’s creator, mentioned a special spinoff program that brought police officers to the prison classroom instead of college students. I remember thinking at the time, “Man, what does THAT dynamic look like?” The police reform debates that Black Lives Matter brought to the fore this year made me think of that program again, and so last week I interviewed the guy who created it and asked him why and how he does it.

Norman Conti is a professor of sociology at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. The curriculum he developed was taught for the first time to a mixed police officers/incarcerated men class in 2016. Since then, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has incorporated the module into its mandatory training program for all police recruits. The students meet once a week in a prison. Everybody earns credits from Duquesne for doing the same kind of work that a college course anywhere would require.

A regular class, for example, would see the students break into small groups and discuss questions such as these: “What are prisons for?”; “Why do people commit crimes?”; “What are some things that prisons do well/poorly?”; “If prisons are a key indicator of a country’s culture and political economy, what do American prisons say about our society?”; “What would you say to the assertion that prisons are now our country’s principal government program for the poor?”

But the Police Training Inside-Out program, still the only one of its kind in the country, is calculated to do more than get the students to consider thorny social issues. It’s also meant to build empathy.

“When you meet guys in prison, (you see that) they’re so different from what you expected, and some of them are so smart, and so creative, and so caring, and so fully human,” says Conti. And, after a while in the class, some of the guys open up and the stories pour out of them. One man would say something like, “I was a young guy and I went badass on the street, and then girls paid attention to me. I got caught up in this thing and now I’m in prison for however long, maybe my whole life.” And the police officers in the room might think, “When I was young maybe I would have done that,” Conti says.

In a way, getting police cadets and incarcerated men to put themselves in each other’s shoes can be easier than doing the same with college youth and imprisoned individuals.

“These are men that have probably more in common than they have differences,” says Conti. “These are aggressive guys, these are men who seek status, these are people who want to control situations. For me, it’s like they’re just two football teams, but the players on each team would almost be interchangeable. Obviously, once you have a serious criminal record you can’t be a cop, but I think so many guys I meet in prison would be great cops.”

Still, with every new cohort, Conti deals with plenty of reticence on both sides. He says he convinces some of the incarcerated guys to join the class by reminding them that the police is not going anywhere, and that their communities back home would much prefer dealing with a police officer who sees a guy with a criminal record as something other than just a “criminal” than with a police officer who divides the world into “citizens” and “predators.” As for the cadets, most of whom are white, Conti has learned to patiently guide them toward a better understanding of systemic social issues.

“When I first started doing this, I was thinking, ‘It’s not like every cop is going to be a critical race theorist.’ Now I’m thinking, ‘Yes, every cop needs to be a critical race theorist!” Conti says, with a chuckle.

We know from social science that our preconceived ideas and stereotypes are most efficiently challenged by the people with whom we already have a positive relationship based on respect and amity. Strategically building such interpersonal ties before (or at least while) engaging in sensitive discussions has worked wonders for mediators everywhere, from the “Hands Across Hills” programs that bring conservatives together with progressives, to deradicalization programs that bring former white supremacists together with members of the ethnic groups they used to target.

Convincing people to sit down with their “enemies” and chat about football and grandchildren — let alone race relations, history and politics — is a daunting task given how strong the forces that segregate us are. But when you see something that works, you support it, replicate it, and expand it, if you truly care about progress.

Conti’s Police Training Inside-Out program should be implemented in every police academy in the country.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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