Brandywine and incarcerated students learn together in course at local jail

Public speaking class offered through Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program provides transformative experience for participants
A group of people poses for a photo in front of a white wall.

Brandywine Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Angela Putman and the 12 students in her public speaking class held at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility were joined by several guests for the closing ceremony.

Credit: Bill Tyson

MEDIA, Pa. — A dozen students, eight from Penn State Brandywine and four incarcerated at the 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 — who said the course was transformative for them — 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. 29.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is an educational program that facilities dialogue across difference, bringing together campus-based (“outside”) students with incarcerated (“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.

This class has also shaped us into more aware, well-educated, empathetic people and citizens of the world.

—McKenna Loney , Penn State Brandywine student

Brandywine Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Angela Putman taught the Effective Speech (CAS 100A) course. She had contacted Warden Laura K. Williams and Kelly Shaw, reentry and program administrator, earlier this year about offering the course at the correctional facility. This was the first time a Penn State Commonwealth Campus participated in the Inside-Out program.

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 and Director of Academic Affairs Wiebke Strehl, Williams and Shaw, Delaware County Councilman and Jail Oversight Board Chairman Kevin Madden, and Ann Schwartzman, Inside-Out’s local network and support coordinator.

“Penn State Brandywine was thrilled to partner with the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in this very special program,” Wells said. “The Inside-Out program is about dialogue and education that transcends all of our differences, but also runs through our core of humanity in bringing us all together to be better humans and better citizens. This program is about educating the mind, but it's also about opening our hearts. And I have no doubt that every person who participated in this program is changed because of it.”

Williams noted it was the first time the correctional facility had hosted such a program and she is looking forward to continuing it.

“Whether our students today have felt the weight of that, they are part of institutional history, and that's a pretty exciting moment to celebrate,” she said. “Though we will continue our partnership with Penn State Brandywine and introduce a number of classes in the future, this is the first one, and you have forever changed this institution as well as the administration of this team.”

"Programs like Inside-Out help people who are being detained build their skill sets in preparation for their return to our community and establish a greater understanding of their experiences to ease their reintegration," she added. "It is because of the effort of Professor Angela Putman and Administrator Kelly Shaw that experiences like this are becoming a critical part of Delaware County's plan to help those who have entered our criminal justice system break the cycle that leads too many to return to incarceration."

Madden, who has been a leading advocate for reforming operation of the county jail, said the program helped to break down barriers and increase understanding.

“This really cuts to the heart of what we are attempting to do here as we reimagine what a county jail ought to look like,” he said. “That really comes down to breaking down barriers. That's really what this program is about, right? It's seeing that the person who's on the other side of a wall is no less human than you are. The more empathy we're able to build, the more we're able to acknowledge the humanity in that person on the other side, the better off we're all going to be.”

Putman explained that students gave three presentations during the semester focused on social issues and said she “watched each of them grow and gain confidence every time they stood up in front of their peers and their professor and gave speeches about their classmates and about social issues for which they have great passion and interest.”

Teaching this class, and meeting each and every person I'm fortunate to now know better, has pushed me to grow, to learn, and to share what I've learned with others.

—Angela Putman , associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences

After two students shared their class presentations — an inside student discussed redlining and an outside student discussed treatment of people with autism — two other students shared their thoughts on the Inside-Out program.

Ashma, an inside student selected by the outside students to share his reflections, talked about the importance of education and how he appreciated being treated as an equal in the class. He said the class was an experience he would never forget.

“This class made you do the things you would usually say ‘no’ to, but with all the support that is given to you, you have no reason not to succeed and go further than you could even imagine,” he said. “Public speaking will bring the best out of you inside and outside.

“No matter what either the inside or outside students thought before we started, it wasn't the same when it came to an end. Not only did it further our education, but it was a life experience we'll never forget.”

McKenna Loney, a second-year student at Penn State Brandywine, was selected by the inside students to share her reflections. She learned of the program in the spring when she saw a flyer advertising it and was curious about the connection between the campus and a jail. Loney said she and other students overcame both their own anxieties about a class held in a jail as well as concerns expressed by family and friends.

“This was not only a rare opportunity but also an unconventional one,” she said. “For some outside students, our perspectives changed. We were undoing all these wrong ideas that we had been taught growing up. For other outside students, this did not change actually, because they had personal experience with family or friends who are or were formerly incarcerated. They already knew and saw you guys as people.”

Loney said she and the other students learned much more in the class than how to be an effective speaker — and she was emotional in describing what she observed about the need for prison reform.

“We also learned from this course the not-so-great things, like how dehumanizing our country's mass incarceration system is from a large to small scale,” she said, “and firsthand all the outside students got to see and hear some of these small, harmful things. People who are incarcerated in this country are not being rehabilitated. It seems like they're just being stripped of more of their rights. But it's already showing that here at George Hill, that is starting to change and change for the good.

“In this class, we questioned our morals, not just about incarcerated people's experiences and how we felt about it, but through each other's presentation topics like the ones that we saw tonight on some social issues in this country. This class has also shaped us into more aware, well-educated, empathetic people and citizens of the world.”

Putman — who plans to continue the course each fall semester — acknowledged that the experience was transformative for her as well. She explained that although she has taught courses on mass incarceration and is well informed on issues surrounding prison reform, she had never been inside a correctional facility before meeting with Shaw about the program.

“I had to confront many of my own ideas and stereotypes about what my inside students would be like and how I would feel that first day I came to interview the group of men who were interested in taking my course,” Putman said. “Teaching this class, and meeting each and every person I'm fortunate to now know better, has pushed me to grow, to learn, and to share what I've learned with others.”

She said each of three key groups — the inside students, the outside students and the employees at the correctional facility — “has taught me something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

On behalf of the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, Shaw and Williams expressed their gratitude to Putman and Penn State.

“Dr. Angela Putman and Penn State Brandywine provided an opportunity for those entrusted in our care to enhance learning, have a voice and instill confidence,” said Shaw, who worked closely with Putman to plan and implement the course. “Through the college course, for three hours every week, students fostered a rich and powerful learning experience. The impactful collaboration between inside and outside students highlights that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can come together and achieve a common goal.”

As the closing ceremony came to an end, Putman asked those assembled to reflect on what the course and the experience meant for the participants.

“I hope that you leave tonight having a greater understanding of the importance of college courses like this one that bring together university students with people experiencing incarceration, so they can learn from one another and further their education in the same physical space,” she said.