Brenda Chaney made her first trip to the Ohio Reformatory for Women in 1978. She was a teaching assistant at Ohio State to a professor instructing a class about prisons in the United States.
Forty years later, she has found a continued purpose inside its walls.
“It’s an entirely different place,” Chaney said. “When I was here for the first time, there were no fences around, there was no barbed wire, it was totally different.”
The outside of the ORW has changed, and so has what happens on the inside.
Now a senior lecturer in sociology at Ohio State, Chaney is an instructor for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a program that brings “outside” students from surrounding colleges together with “inside” students currently serving time in correctional facilities for a collaborative-learning environment.
“The real reason that I was attracted to this program is because I think who ends up in prison and who doesn’t is largely determined by the family they grew up in and the neighborhood they grew up in when none of us get to choose that,” Chaney said. “If my students learn anything at all it should be that they’re not different from each other.”
The program aims to create two-way discussions about issues such as crime, justice and other social concerns by having students work together.
To date, Inside-Out has reached 45 states and expanded overseas to 10 additional countries with more than 800 trained instructors teaching courses ranging from criminology to philosophy. More than 30,000 students have taken an Inside-Out class, and there are now 20 instructors teaching the program at universities throughout Ohio.
On Saturday, more than 70 people filed into the chapel of ORW, with large carts of donated Bibles lining the walls of the entryway, a large wood cross hovering over the room, and chairs arranged in a large circle.
The place of worship transformed into an integrated space for Inside-Out Ohio’s annual meeting where inmates, Ohio State students and leaders in the program had an open dialogue about prison reform, the re-entry process and issues specific to incarcerated women.
Outside the chapel, a few of the insider students were selling ornate, hand-crafted jewelry and pens on a fold-out table for a program that raises money to help cover the costs for inmates re-entering society.
A 28-year-old insider student, who studied globalization with Chaney every Wednesday during Spring Semester of 2017, now participates in a burgeoning “think tank” group, which focuses on crime, justice and related social concerns.
The student, who cannot be identified by name for legal reasons, said the program has given her a purpose and allowed her to take charge of her future. Since joining Inside-Out, she has used her experience in the program to pay it forward at ORW. She now tutors other women at the institution in literacy.
Surrounded by her classmates, she nervously presented about her experience with the new think tank program at ORW and how other institutions could implement their own.
She has eight months of her sentence left and is looking forward to using the tools she’s been given to move forward to the next phase of her life.
“It’s a long process and no one is going to do it for you,” she said. “They can guide you but at the end of the day it is up to you to do the work.”
The event brought new ideas into the discussion about helping people who spent time in prison re-enter society, the disparity in criminology research focused on women and helping reformed citizens in rural communities with the specific challenges they face.
Former insider student Terry Green spoke at length about the difficulty of the re-entry process, especially for people who do not have a solid support system.
“Re-entry, for me, is every day,” Green said. “It’s a battle, I know that, but it’s worth it. You have to choose the life you want each day.”
Green was incarcerated from 2009 to 2013 and took initiative with his education while he was behind bars. Within 90 days of entering prison he had earned his GED, and within six months he was taking classes for college credit. He took his first Inside-Out course in 2011.
Green plans to become the first former insider student to become an instructor for Inside-Out. He plans on teaching a class on entrepreneurship in the spring of 2019 while also running a nonprofit social-justice consulting firm, “Think, Make, Live,” that helps individuals involved in the criminal justice system.
For some students, the meeting marked an end to their time with Inside-Out.
Chloe Knoell, a fourth-year in pharmacy, has been a student involved with Inside-Out since her freshman year when she took Chaney’s globalization class. She has stayed involved in book groups and developing the think tank for the past three years.
“This is a really unique learning opportunity that you can’t really get in any other more conventional classroom setting,” Knoell said. “[It] has been really valuable.”
Everyone, but especially the insider students, has made her want to be an advocate for former offenders and prison reform, Knoell said. Despite this program not aiding her pharmacy degree, she said she could not have imagined her time at Ohio State any other way.
“Inmates, because they’re painted in the media and regular society as being monsters when in reality they are people who, granted, have made a few mistakes in their time, but especially the women I’ve met in this class are people really actively trying to better themselves and work on successfully re-entering society when they’re able to,” Knoell said.
The event concluded with everyone taking a moment to thank Chaney for her constant support of the program that she unknowingly became woven into on her first visit 40 years ago.
“Every semester that I’m here somebody says to me that they learn more about themselves and about the other group than they did before and that’s the purpose,” Chaney said. “That’s why we’re here, to learn about other people.”