The university announced on Sept. 21 it would be the first Texas college to work with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a project designed to allow students to experience learning inside a correctional facility alongside incarcerated people.
“[Inside-Out] is a semester-long college class that combines an equal number of college students taking a class alongside and an equal number of incarcerated students,” said Haley Zettler, an assistant professor in the criminal justice department.
The program started at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1997 and has expanded to 36 states and seven countries for dozens of majors and thousands of students.
After successfully implementing the program at Memphis University in Tennessee, Zettler moved to Denton in 2019. She had planned to start the program at the university soon after but was delayed due to the pandemic.
“This summer I really started kind of hunkering down to get this going and have been […] talking with a partner to get everything finalized and hopefully teach the first class next fall,” Zettler said.
Criminal Justice Department Chair Jody Sundt is enthusiastic about the program and what it will bring to the university.
“I thought it would be a great fit for UNT when I knew that Professor Zettler was wanting to establish [the program],” Sundt said. “I just think it’s a fantastic opportunity to reach both inside and outside students.”
Zettler is still waiting for the location to be officially approved but hopes professors can begin training to teach classes in late October. The facility cannot be named until its approval but it is less than an hour from Denton.
The program is open for upperclassman of all majors but students must first pass a background check and have reliable transportation to and from the facility. Incarcerated people interested in attending must also go through a vetting process and background check before joining.
“It’s open to all students that would qualify,” Zettler said. “There is going to be an application process for UNT students to have to apply and to do an interview and to be selected in the program.”
As of September 2021, the only class planned for the program is an upper-level criminal justice elective taught by Zettler for 18-20 university students. Zettler hopes more course options will be available in subsequent semesters after the program officially starts next fall.
For students on the outside, the program is designed to humanize a group of people criminal justice students rarely interact with before leaving college. For those on the inside, the incarcerated students get an opportunity to take college courses during their sentences.
“It really did just feel like a college class, but you were in a jail,” said Maura Joyner, a University of Memphis alumna and former student of Zettler.
Joyner was a criminology junior in 2019 when Zettler, her mentor, urged her to join the program.
“I was told, ‘You’re taking the class, good luck,’” Joyner said. “But it was something I was really looking forward to.”
Joyner said there were things to get used to as an Inside-Out student. The women’s correctional facility where Joyner’s class was had a dress code of no loose-fitting clothing or any clothing with graffiti.
Inside the class, all assignments were handwritten. Most lessons were discussion-based and students could not bring spiral-bound notebooks.
“You couldn’t take anything metal in,” Joyner said. “You had to go through security every time.”
Despite the adjustments, the class functioned like one taught on a university campus. There were group discussions, projects and teams of students learning side by side every week throughout the semester.
“We got to know everyone’s stories,” Joyner said. “They would tell us just unprompted and talk about their lives.”
After “graduating” from the program, students were not allowed to stay in touch with their incarcerated classmates at the correctional facility.
“Everyone was crying at the end,” Joyner said.
An incarcerated woman who graduated from the program in 2018, identified only as Alyssa, was inspired by the program.
“We got to teach the future police officers, lawyers and prosecutors to see ‘offenders’ as people,” Alyssa said in a quote provided by Zettler.
This perspective stayed with Joyner long after the program ended.
“The summer after that semester, I did do an internship with the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives],” Joyner said. “We, therefore, had to do a lot of interviews with prisoners and potential suspects in all sorts of armed robberies and things like that.”
While the other interns were quicker to assume the potential suspects were lying, Joyner saw things differently.
“Maybe because of my age, maybe because of the class, I had a little bit more of a soft side,” Joyner said. “I was like, ‘Well, he’s had a tough life and he’s trying for his kids.’ I definitely had a bit of a different viewpoint.”
Featured Illustration by Miranda Thomas