Essays From Inside: James Anderson
Prison is a cold and unforgiving place at times. It’s a 365 day per year punishment where the lack of meaningful programming to stimulate positive self change can ruin the hope in rehabilitatable men and women. Trust me, I know.
My name is James. I’ve lived behind these prison walls for nearly 14 years now and I’ve seen what happens when all hope is drained from a prisoner’s reach. I came to prison when I was 17, and during my stay there’s been countless times where hope has felt so out of reach, so distant and unobtainable, that I truly felt like giving up on many occasions. Unfortunately this is an all too familiar feeling among men and women behind bars. The neat thing about hope though is that it often appears out of nowhere, when one least expects it but needs it the most. That was the case for me.
In the winter of 2006 I met Michelle Inderbitzin, a professor of sociology from Oregon State University. She brought the Inside-Out program behind these walls and it has instilled a sense of worth and newfound hope in many inmates, myself included. Each week Prof. Inderbitzin brought 15 students from the O.S.U. campus for a 10 week course involving in-depth discussions about crime, justice, public policy, and ultimately about how the deviant elements of society are both created and dissolved. I am one of the 15 original inmates chose to be part of the first Inside-Out program, and it’s without doubt one of the defining moments in my life behind bars.
After years of isolation from the outside world all of a sudden I was sitting next to students from the campus who’d never experienced prison related issues other than what they’d seen on the nightly news or read in their morning papers. It was a new experience for all involved and we learned just as much from them as they did from us. I feel more than comfortable saying that together we were able to shatter all the preconceived notions we’d previously held about each other. As inmates, we were worried that we wouldn’t be accepted as equals in the O.S.U. students’ eyes. Whether that came from having to wear our standard issue prison blues, or simply from the stigma that being a prisoner carries, I don’t know. But so rapidly those fears faded as our weekly classes turned into animated discussions designed around specific topics, as well as many instances of random laughter and high-fives as the students became a close-knit group rather than two differing sides.
Having to say goodbye to each other at the end of each class during the 10 weeks quickly became the most difficult aspect, and it was often mentioned by both inmates and O.S.U. students that we just wished our classes could somehow. When was the last time you heard that about an educational class? Exactly.
I’ve had the privilege of being involved in 3 separate Inside-Out classes during the last 2 ½ years and I can honestly say that it has drastically changed my outlook. It’s because of the in-depth teaching, knowledge, encouragement, and hope provided by Prof. Inderbitzin and the numerous O.S.U. students that enable myself and other inmates to work towards a positive future rather than one of uncertainty. Through class discussions and required reading we’ve learned valuable insight into the causes and deep seeded roots of our behaviors, and every inmate went through intense periods of self examination as a result.
I can say with certainty that not one of us is proud of our criminal past, and nothing about the criminal lifestyle is appealing to us as we look positively toward our futures. I am very honored to know that I was part of such an inspiring program, and it has led me directly to further educational aspirations. Immediately after taking Prof. Inderbitzin’s initial class, education had taken its grip on me and I began taking courses through a local community college. I’m proud to say that I’m well on the way toward earning two separate college degrees, and it’s directly because of the amazing opportunity I had by being a part of the Inside-Out program.
I will thank everyone involved in the Inside-Out program by being a model inmate while here, and a productive member of both my family and my community once released. Describing it in 3 words would be easy: an amazing experience.