I’m feeling especially proud today of my current Inside-Out class at the Oregon State Penitentiary.  This is a class where students get deeply invested in the material.  To help facilitate their investment and involvement, one of their assignments is to write a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece to a local newspaper.  They can choose to send it individually or just turn it in to me; I had success one quarter getting a batch of them published together.  This quarter, the students did the work all on their own.

Two separate pieces were published in different local newspapers today.  First, here is the content of an op-ed written by Shelby, an outside (OSU) student, and published in the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian:

I recently attended a community breakfast hosted by the Marion County Reentry Initiative in Salem. According to its website, MCRI is dedicated to “rebuild lives, promote community safety and save taxpayer money by breaking the cycle of criminal activity.” I heard about the event through a brief article in the Salem Statesman Journal. The breakfast was meant to provide information for community members on how to help released Oregon prisoners reintegrate into Marion County society. Although I don’t live in Marion County, the opportunity was appealing to me because I’m currently taking a class called Inside Out.

Every Monday, my fellow Oregon State University classmates and I drive from Corvallis to the Oregon State Penitentiary. This unique class is held inside the maximum-security prison and it consists of 30 students — 15 of them from OSU and 15 of them OSP inmates. We come together once a week to discuss crime, communities, prisons and prevention. Through this exclusive opportunity, I’ve viewed all four topics in ways I never have before. The Inside Out program is one small way of helping a select few inmates prepare to re-enter mainstream society. Through our class they are able to feel tied to the community again. But we must be prepared to help all inmates.

The damaging stigma attached to prisoners by our society is clear for all to see. Even after serving their time, they forever bear the label of ex-convict. We often hear, “You do the crime, you do the time,” yet we continue to punish these individuals long after they’ve served their sentence. After being released, many face difficulties finding jobs, obtaining student loans, securing housing and readjusting to mainstream society. Unfortunately, many fall back into criminal ways and re-enter the prison system.

At the community breakfast state prision chief Max Williams said, “Ninty-three percent of prison populations will eventually be returned to communities. Therefore we must have a strategy to help them readjust.” He also pointed out that it’s a community problem that needs a community solution. This concept is something we’ve discussed in great detail in our Inside Out class. If community members could actively help ex-inmates transition rather than shun them from our communities, the likelihood of them recidivating is much lower, making our communities safer. MCRI is one organization that’s helping ex-inmates have a successful re-entry, but without community support, those individuals will forever be locked into the stigma.

This isn’t an easy concept for most to gladly accept, but Marion County is up for the challenge.

And here is the content of a letter to the editor written by an inside student, Jeremy, and published in the Salem Statesman-Journal:

I am an inmate enrolled in an OSU sociology class taught inside the Oregon State Penitentiary.

The class, made up of half inmates/half university students, focuses on crime, communities, prisons and prevention.

I am serving a mandatory Measure 11 sentence and I can tell you from my personal experience that many of us are working toward becoming more productive members of society by participating in classes and job opportunities available at OSP. I strongly encourage concerned citizens and lawmakers to allow inmates to be able to receive “earned time” off their sentences in exchange for good behavior during incarceration.

Gov. Kulongoski’s Reset Cabinet recently recommended up to 15 percent earned time off for the majority of Measure 11 sentences. Offering earned time incentive promotes good behavior inside prison while, more importantly, promoting the changes necessary for true rehabilitation outside of prison.

Currently, Measure 11 doesn’t allow for judges’ discretion and expertise in sentencing. Furthermore, it costs the state excessive dollars that are spent on incarceration only, which provides the least amount of treatment and incentive necessary for rehabilitation.

Allowing Measure 11 offenders earned time incentive is a responsible solution to reduce the costs of corrections.

These pieces were published today.  Prior to the elections earlier this month, Chris, another outside student, had a letter published in the OSU student newspaper in hopes of educating his fellow students before they cast their ballots:

Students still determining their vote for ballot Measure 73 should consider voting no. Measure 73 would impose a 25-year mandatory minimum on “major sex felony crimes” and DUII convictions, if prior convictions for either exist. This “Oregon Crimefighting Act” looks to be, on the surface, a valid crime prevention tool. However, mandatory minimums have historically been ineffective at preventing crime and may in fact contribute to more crime and greater state budget crises. If enacted, the long-term costs to the state can be upwards of $30 million annually. Issues raised by Measure 73 extend beyond budgetary and extend to questions of justice. Put simply, mandatory minimums set specific sentences for certain crimes without regard for individual circumstances, despite little evidence that mandatory minimums prevent crime. Politicians hoping to persuade the public that she or he is tough on crime may be getting the facts of mandatory minimums incorrect. Fourteen other OSU students and I are enrolled in a course on crime, communities, prisons and prevention that meets in Oregon State Penitentiary with 17 of its residents. We have been studying research and learning from OSP’s residents’ experiences on political, social and economic ramifications of mandatory minimums. In short, mandatory minimums have contributed greatly to the increased prison population in the U.S., where we are the world’s No. 1 incarcerator. Oregon should stop spending money on putting its citizens away and start spending money on proven methods to help prevent crime – addressing our economic and public education crises. Do not put Oregon citizens behind bars for 25 years so that politicians can appear tough. Learn the facts about mandatory minimums and you will no doubt vote no.

In addition, the students arranged for the Oregon State student newspaper to do a story on the class and their experience.  At least four students made the time to do interviews with the reporter in order to share their thoughts on the issues with the larger student body.

All very cool.  We are also coming up with some great stuff for class projects – more on that later.  For now, I’m just grateful to get to work with  such a motivated group of students who really care about the issues and are striving to make their corner of the world a better place.