‘Inside-Out’ Writing Course Breaks Down Divide for Incarcerated Students


Anton Johnson

Managing Editor

Traditional students and incarcerated students came together to write plays and put together a newspaper for UNO’s first “inside-out” course. Photo by Anton Johnson/The Gateway.

Thanks to an internship with RISE and opportunities through UNO, senior Maeve Hemmer already knew what the inside of a prison looked like when she signed up to take a class at the Omaha Correctional Center (OCC). Despite her previous work, the class was still an eye-opening experience for Hemmer.

“It was different in the sense that we were classmates,” Hemmer said. “It wasn’t like a volunteer and someone receiving volunteer services. We were all learning together.”

Last semester, English professor Dustin Pendley taught Reading and Writing about American Prisons, UNO’s first ever “inside-out” course. Inside-out classes bring together traditional university students and incarcerated students in the same classroom.

“The purpose of inside-out classes is to break down difference and have a dialogue across the divide between incarceration and the not incarcerated,” Pendley said.

The program started at Temple University in Philadelphia and has been replicated across the country and internationally. Peru State was the first school in Nebraska to offer inside-out courses at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

Pendley and other instructors have taught incarcerated students at OCC since UNO began the TRAC program in 2017, but last fall was the first time students were brought in from outside of the prison. 

Eight “inside” students and eight “outside” students discussed creative nonfiction works written by incarcerated writers. In contrast to mostly theory-based on-campus classes, Hemmer said the inside-out class gave her the opportunity to hear from people with “lived experience,” some of whom have been incarcerated for more than 15 years.

While the outside students greatly valued the perspective of the inside students, Pendley said it was important that they all saw each other as equals in their discussions.

“A danger that can happen in an inside-out class is that the inside students can become the subject matter, and that’s not the goal here,” Pendley said. “There’s a real equality to the class and everyone has the same value.”

“There wasn’t anybody coming in as an expert,” Hemmer said. “Certainly some people had more experience on some things, but that wasn’t what the focus was.”

To promote that sense of equality, Pendley had the seating chart alternate between inside and outside students and small group discussions were split evenly. Pendley said he restricted all of the students to using only their first names, because incarcerated people are often only referred to by a number, or their last name if they’re lucky. 

“It’s a really dehumanizing environment,” Pendley said of incarceration. “So a lot of the inside students really reflected on how humanizing [the class] was and how great the connections were.”

Classes held in prison have a lot of hurdles that students may take for granted. The class didn’t utilize Canvas since it would only be available for the outside students, and Pendley said most of the inside students’ assignments were handwritten because OCC has only a few typewriters for hundreds of inmates to share.

Pendley said they’re always “at the mercy of the facility,” which makes bringing in outside materials complicated. He had to email someone at the prison to print off any documents he needed, and he wouldn’t have any handouts if that person were sick that day.

The students’ final project was to write either a play or a newspaper in groups of four. Outside student and former Gateway editor-in-chief Molly Ashford used her experience as a journalist to put together the “inJustice Report,” featuring pieces written by her group members as well as an article from the Flatwater Free Press, which allows other outlets to republish their stories. 

Inside student Ben wrote an article covering a volleyball game at the prison, and Pendley said Ben has some other writing that may get published soon.

“[Ben’s article] is like Hunter S. Thompson, it’s got some gonzo journalism to it,” Pendley said. “He’s really talented.”

Hemmer’s group wrote “As Time Goes On,” a play about Gary, an inside student who’s been incarcerated for decades. Unfortunately for the production but fortunate for Gary, he missed the performance because he was promoted to work release before the last week of class. Another inside student, David, stepped in to play the part.

“We thought, ‘Dang, the star of our play isn’t going to be at our play,” Hemmer said. “But of course everyone was happy for him.”

Pendley is teaching the course again this semester, and he said there is interest in future inside-out courses in programs like history, theater and Black studies.