group of people smiling

Brandywine and incarcerated students learn together in course at local jail

Sixteen students, eight from Penn State Brandywine and eight incarcerated at a nearby county jail, overcame their apprehensions, challenged their ideas about the criminal justice system and studied public speaking during a semester-long course offered through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. 
Public speaking course offered through Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program provides transformative experience for participants

Sixteen students, eight from Penn State Brandywine and eight incarcerated at a nearby county jail, overcame their apprehensions, challenged their ideas about the criminal justice system and studied public speaking during a semester-long course offered through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The students met each Tuesday evening during the fall semester at Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility, with a closing ceremony and celebration held on Nov. 28.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is an educational program that facilitates dialogue across differences, bringing together campus-based, or “outside,” students with incarcerated, or “inside,” students. The George W. Hill Correctional Facility houses people who either have been accused of a crime and are awaiting a court hearing or have received a sentence of less than two years, typically for a relatively minor, non-violent offense.

Brandywine Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Angela Putman taught the course, "CAS 100A: Effective Speech." She had contacted Warden Laura K. Williams and Kelly Shaw, reentry and program administrator, last year about offering the course at the correctional facility. After its successful completion in fall 2022, the course was administered for a second time in the fall 2023 semester.

At the closing ceremony, several students shared examples of speeches they had prepared for class and their reflections on the program, and each student was awarded a certificate. Among the guests attending the ceremony were Brandywine’s Chancellor Marilyn J. Wells, Director of Development Patton Vo and Interim Director of Academic Affairs Jen Nesbitt, as well as Williams and Shaw.

“One of my favorite quotes from a Brandywine professor this year is, ‘We are a community of people learning,’ and that really stuck with me," Wells said. "I think the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and what we’ve done here together is a testament to that. When you look at all the partners that have come together — Delaware County, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and Penn State Brandywine — it’s really a testament that we’re a community of people learning.”

Williams noted how courageous it is for the students, both inside and outside, to take part in the course.

“We’re celebrating a moment where so many people have learned to find their voice and be able to employ and use it in a way — with confidence — that they may not have been able to before taking this course,” she said. “The voice is such an important and profound way of communicating with other people, and so many people who are incarcerated in America today don’t have a voice. I’m very proud of the students who took the courageous step to join this course, whether from the inside or outside, to explore this opportunity and be able to use their voices in a very different way.”

Shaw mentioned how proud she was of the inmates for completing a college course while also maintaining a full-time job in the correctional facility.

“All eight inside students earned a facility job and work full time while taking a college course," she said. "Collectively, you all assist in maintaining our small city here: preparing meals, delivering commissary, providing communication between programs and cleaning and sanitizing the building. Your hard work keeps the city running. Inside students, you did something brave signing up and interviewing for something new and committing to the class. You’ve successfully completed a college-level course. You’ve learned a lesson to always be open to new adventures and commit yourself, and you will prevail. When you leave, continue to work hard and remember that you are supported. We believe in you, and you are enough.”

Putman explained that students gave three presentations during the semester focused on social issues.

“I watched each of them grow and gain confidence every time they stood up in front of their peers and gave speeches about social issues for which they have great passion," she said.

After two students shared their class presentations — one inside student discussed financial literacy education and an outside student discussed waste colonialism — two other students shared their thoughts on the Inside-Out Program. 

Kevin, an inside student selected by the outside students to share his reflections, talked about how the program was one of the most enjoyable experiences he’s had in the facility.

“It’s funny how time flies when you’re having fun, especially when fun isn’t normally on the agenda. … I must say that this has been the most enjoyable and educational experience I’ve had at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility,” he said.

Aerin Yoder, a second-year student at Penn State Brandywine, was selected by the inside students to share her reflections. She explained the nervousness of the two groups when they met on the first day of class, the similarities both groups found with one another and what she enjoyed from her classmates throughout the semester.

“I vividly remember our first day of class," she said. "The room was much larger than I expected. As we walked in, we saw all the inside students lined up on the farthest wall of the room. As described by one of my classmates, the best way to picture this moment is like introducing cats for the first time. This perfectly describes the initial caution but curiosity we had when talking to each other. Throughout this experience, we’ve all learned so much not only about public speaking but about all the students, both inside and outside. In most of my classes, I only get to know a few people — mostly those who sit around me. In this environment, I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to know everyone on a personal level. Inside and outside students bonded so quickly, going from two separate groups to one single class. In this class, I liked how we were all able to learn from each other and teach each other.”