It was a college-level class that broke down barriers, pushed its students to new lights and allowed its 32 students to express their views without concerns of how their opinions would be received.
No one was treated differently, and everyone learned from the experience. In fact, nobody wanted the class to end.
On the first day of class, said Michele Staton-Tindall, an instructor and an associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, "Everybody had a lot of the same questions, everybody had a lot of the same anxieties about the other group: 'What are they going to be like? How is this going to go?'"
What was different about this college course? It was made up of 16 UK students and 16 minimum-security inmates from Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington. They gathered in Blackburn's visitation room, studying as peers.
"Drugs and Crime, An Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program Course" was a first for UK and the state prison system. The Inside-Out model paired 16 undergraduates with 16 inmates to study as peers in a seminar behind prison walls. The program operates in more than 300 prisons and college programs across the country, said Carrie Oser, a second instructor and an associate professor at UK's sociology department.
The Inside-Out Program was developed in 1997 at Temple University, founded on the premise that inmates and college students had a significant amount to learn from one another when studying together.
Every student was required to read more than 400 pages, write 10 reflection papers, create group presentations and write a 15- to 20-page final paper. Because of prison rules, many of the Blackburn inmates could not use computers or other technology.
The goal of the course was to examine the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs through a sociological analysis and a social work framework for policy and treatment. Some inmates said they initially were concerned about the rigorous content because they had struggled to get high school equivalency diplomas.
It was a tough, high-level college course, inmate Willis Winston said, "but collectively we just put our heads together. We were able to do it."
Watching the students evolve, Staton-Tindall said, "has been so rewarding."
An inmate's criminal charges were not discussed in class, and the students didn't use last names in the classroom.
"I felt like I was an equal in the class. I didn't feel like an inmate. People asked for our opinions, and when we gave it, they respected it," inmate John Pilar said.
"It broke down some barriers for me," he said. "I had misconceptions about college students."
At a celebration during the final class on Dec. 16, the inmates and the college students asked top college and corrections officials to continue offering similar courses.
Now, said Paige Walker, a UK social work student, "I have the ability to consider the offenders as people that have histories and lives outside of the system. It also allowed me to consider my own biases that I may have been unaware of when I came into this program, and think about some of the stigmas and stereotypes that we attach to people unknowingly."
Through intensive group discussions, interactive exercises and learning activities, students explored issues surrounding addiction and health, criminalization of drug use and the system responses to drugs and crime.
"I wanted to teach an Inside-Out course because as a sociologist, I believe it's important to examine social problems like drugs and crime from multiple perspectives, as it could ultimately promote social change," Oser said.
Ashley Teasley, a UK student, sees the potential for that social change.
"I realized that the whole time I was in here, I wasn't conscious of the fact that I was in a prison, that I was with incarcerated persons," she said. They were all just classmates, Teasley said.
Terry Abshear, an inmate, said he hoped the UK students would share with other undergraduates and their future children what inmates had shown them about the confined life at Blackburn. Maybe it will prevent someone from ending up in prison, he said.
The UK students earned college credit for their work. In some courses taught at prisons, inmates get college credit or time off their sentence — called good time — when they take a class.
Because this course was a pilot project, the Blackburn inmates received only a certificate.
They said it didn't matter because they gained a lot more than a piece of paper.
"I've learned so much from this class," said Winston, an inmate. "I've learned that typically, people are good. It's the situations that come along in life that turn people bad because they don't handle stress properly."
Said Dale Martin, Blackburn deputy warden of programs: "I've not had one inmate say, 'Hey we are not getting any good time out of this class.' But I've had a lot of inmates say, 'I hope they do that class next year so I can get into it.'"
Officials said they hope the course can be given again this fall.
Oser said the course stands to increase the number of college graduates in the work force who have experience with inmates and to increase opportunities for offenders when they re-enter society.
Oser said that during the fall semester, one inmate was released from prison but continued the course work independently. He has decided to enroll in college.
Kentucky Corrections Commissioner LaDonna H. Thompson, who attended the final class, said it could help college students realize that "folks who are here at the institution are just like folks out on the street," and that inmates "can do some good."
Thompson said the course is part of giving the inmates a second chance after prison, so they aren't "defined by what they did for the rest of their lives."