Newswise — A growing number of service-learning classes bring students into jails and prisons, stepping across what Alexander (2010) might call the new Jim Crow color line created by mass incarceration. Many of these courses are part of the innovative Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings inside and outside students together in a shared college class. Drawing on ethnographic observations, interviews, and 8 years of experience teaching Inside-Out courses, this article explores the ways students construct racial identities and understand racial hierarchies as they work together behind bars. Race is the elephant in the room in America’s prisons, so faculty need to develop new strategies to support our students in the complex emotional and intellectual work of making sense of race. This requires understanding the diversity of our students’ racialized experiences, pushing back against the temptations of colorblindness, and developing new ways to practice relationship building and social solidarity.

One day, 15 college students were walking into a Southern California juvenile hall to take part in a shared Inside-Out class with 15 incarcerated students when two guards approached the group and singled out Anthony, one of only two Black male college students in our class. He had left his ID at home, as had a White woman, Joan. The guards ignored her completely but asked Anthony a series of probing questions. Once they were convinced that he was a student, they asked him to dress differently so he would be easier to distinguish from the incarcerated minors. This moment made visible unconscious racial and gendered stereotypes that pervade (and shape) America’s prison system and that have seeped deeply into our schools and communities in ways that fundamentally shape life chances for young people (Eberhardt et al., 2004; NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 2006). The probation staff apparently assumed that a White woman was a legitimate college volunteer but that a Black male college student, dressed that day in a clean white T-shirt and jeans, looked disconcertingly like an incarcerated youth. As we left, Anthony commented wryly, “the darkest skinned one in the class. It’s just what we are learning about.”

College students, like Anthony and Joan, were stepping across what Alexander (2010) might call the new Jim Crow color line created by mass incarceration. In a deeply embodied way, they were forced to confront clear evidence that we do not live in a post-racial society through our Inside-Out class. Every class, the outside students left our majority White campus to join our incarcerated classmates, who were almost all Black and Latino young men. But Joan and Anthony (and the rest of their classmates) did not experience the racial contours of our Inside-Out classrooms in the same way. They came face-to-face with very different racial, class, and gendered stereotypes as they worked together inside; they noticed different things; and they struggled over how to understand the ways race and racism mattered in the criminal justice system and in their own lives.

A growing number of community service learning classes bring students into jails and prisons, crossing some of the starkest racial and class divides in the United States.[1] Many of these courses, like my own, are part of the innovative Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, founded by Lori Pompa at Temple University, in which inside students and outside students come together as equals in a shared college class. There are now over 150 universities that offer Inside-Out classes as well as a growing number of other community service learning opportunities behind bars. As these classes grow, we need to look more carefully at how our students experience and think about race from inside the criminal justice system. Race is not the only social identity or form of structural inequality students confront as they work together inside. Race operates in complex intersections with gender, class, sexuality, and disability to shape our criminal justice system. But race is so deeply intertwined with our criminal justice system and our ideas about crime and punishment that it is often the elephant in the room and thus deserves special attention.

Scholars such as Wacquant (2010) and Alexander (2010) have argued that the criminal justice system is one of the central race-making institutions in the post–civil rights era, shaping the boundaries and meanings of racial categories. The racializing power of the criminal justice system means that faculty and students come to community service learning behind bars with stereotypes, expectations, and emotions that are deeply shaped by prior racialized experiences. It also means that we are actively constructing our own racial identities in and through our Inside-Out classrooms. These classes become a vital space where inside and outside students explore the significance of race in America. Indeed, I will argue that many outside students come to these Inside-Out classrooms exactly because they are seeking to confront, understand, and sometimes even transcend the ways that race structures American society and constrains our lives. It is thus imperative that we think clearly about how we can support all our students (inside and out) through the complex intellectual, political, emotional, and personal work of making sense of race.

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Author/expert: Jennifer Tilton is a Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Redlands, California. Her teaching and research focus on youth, race, space, and the criminal justice system. For the last 12 years, she has engaged her students in community-based learning opportunities both in the juvenile justice system, in community-based alternatives to incarceration, and in criminal justice reentry advocacy. She also collaborates with students, scholars, and community organizations to develop new ways of mapping, archiving, and teaching a more diverse history of Inland Southern California. 

Journal Link: Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2021