Carnegie Mellon University
November 21, 2023

Prison Education Project Offers Students, Faculty New Learning Experiences

By Emily Nagin

Every Friday during the spring 2023 semester, 15 students from Carnegie Mellon University piled into a van to make the 70-mile trip to the State Correctional Institute at Somerset (SCI-Somerset), a Pennsylvania state penitentiary. Accompanied by Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences faculty Wendy Z. Goldman, the Paul Mellon Distinguished Professor of History, and Kody Manke­-Miller, an assistant teaching professor in the Psychology Department, these students took the first courses offered through the CMU Prison Education Project (CMU PEP).

Modeled after the nationwide prison education program Inside-Out, CMU PEP courses are taught once a week inside a local prison and are made up of half non-incarcerated ("outside") students and half incarcerated ("inside") students. Rather than teach or tutor, CMU students are there to learn alongside the students who are incarcerated. Both inside and outside students follow a regular CMU curric­ulum and receive full credit for their coursework.

In spring 2023, the program offered two courses: Psychology and Society taught by Manke-Miller and Russian History: Game of Thrones taught by Goldman. In fall 2023, Jeffrey Williams, professor of English and Literary and Cultural Studies, taught Major Fiction Then and Now: Imagining the World. In spring 2024, students are taking Creative Writing in Community with Jane Mccafferty, professor of English and director of the creative writing program, or Germany and the Second World War taught by Donna Harsch, professor of history.

The program is the result of years of effort and careful planning on Goldman's part. In 2020, the mur­der of George Floyd ignited a wave of activism and pushed Goldman to do something she'd been consid­ering for a long time: start a prison education program. With support from Richard Scheines, Bess Family Dean of Dietrich College, and Nico Slate, Department of History head, Goldman reached out to fellow faculty. Manke-Miller was one of many intrigued by the concept. As a social psychologist who studies inter group interactions, he hoped PEP would help CMU students break down their understanding of difference.

"It's a chance to access education in a way that is often denied to lots of parts of society. Not just access but the experience of being able to interact with the course material and think, 'Oh, I have complicated thoughts about the world as well, and they're represented in some of the things I'm reading about.'"

Kody Manke­-Miller
assistant teaching professor, Psychology

"When we don't have interactions with other people and when we are going off stereotypes or just assumptions, we are really bad at understanding the world," said Manke-Miller, whose reasons for joining CMU PEP were also personal. "I have many family members who have been incarcer­ated. I know prisons systemically deny people opportunities."

Before entering the prison, CMU stu­dents and professors must follow a rigid set of security steps. They lock their cell phones, laptops and coats in the van, and they go through metal detectors, are patted down and have their hands dusted for drug residue. Once cleared, they pass through a series of gates and walk across an open-air prison yard.

Goldman and Manke-Miller are unable to bring in paper; reading materials must be scanned, emailed to the prison and printed inside the facility. When Goldman asked if she could teach her students a traditional Russian dance, she was informed it would be impossible: The dance involved participants holding hands. Inside and outside students were for­bidden from touching.

For Joseph Chan, a sophomore in the School of Computer Science, PEP felt like a unique opportunity.

"I'm an international student," Chan said. "I came to the U.S. wanting to seek out some new experiences. When I first heard about the course I knew I definitely needed to go for this. It's something I wouldn't be able to do back in my home country."

Camille Chandler, a junior studying psychology and social and decision sciences, said when she first heard about PEP, she was skeptical. Researching the mission and structure of the program was encouraging, but she wasn't fully convinced until she attended an in-person information session.

"All the students and professors were very excited about the program and very willing to try something this unique and different," Chandler said. "I thought with a group of people who wanted to do this as badly as everyone did, and me wanting to do it but just being a little bit nervous, it made sense for me to give it a shot."

Chandler's nerves were dispelled on the first day of class, when she and an inside student discovered that they both love the singer Lauryn Hill. This connection helped break down an invisible barrier.

"We really don't communicate across lines of difference," Chandler said. "Programs like PEP help us root our ideas of difference in real, lived experience."

Vaun Moser, a sophomore study­ing history and involved with the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy and Technology, agreed.

"It really helps you with breaking down stereotypes you may have not even known that you had," she said.

PEP is also an exciting opportunity for the inside students. When the courses were first announced, nearly 400 people applied to take them.

"It's a chance to access education in a way that is often denied to lots of parts of society," Manke-Miller said. "Not just access but the experience of being able to interact with the course material and think, 'Oh, I have complicated thoughts about the world as well, and they're represented in some of the things I'm reading about."'

This excitement is reflected in the quality of the inside students' work.

"The class has been one of the most interesting classes I have ever taught in over 30 years," Goldman said. "The inside students engage with the material in a way that is an absolute joy to a professor."

Goldman pointed out many of the inside students went to prison in their late teens or early 20s — the same age the CMU students are now. Some have been incarcerated for upward of two decades.

"I cannot begin to express how much it was appreciated," said Brandon, an SCI-Somerset student. "I always looked forward to Fridays, not because I was getting off the housing unit or going to school, but mainly because the professor and the CMU students treated me and the other inmates like real people."

As the spring 2023 term drew to a close, Goldman and Manke-Miller felt it was important to acknowledge the students' hard work and dedication. On the last day of class, the inside and outside students received certificates at a special ceremony attended by Dean Scheines.

"The experience of watching equal numbers of CMU students and SCI­Somerset students get certificates was deeply gratifying," Scheines said. "Students were transformed and said so. I've been in higher education for 35 years, and I've never seen anything like it."