This semester, a group of Bowdoin students have had the opportunity to take a class in an entirely new environment: the Maine Correctional Center (MCC), a medium/minimum security prison facility in Windham, Maine. Twelve students from Bowdoin and 12 inmates, or “inside students,” meet weekly at the prison to take Citizenship and Religion in America with Elizabeth Pritchard, a religion professor.

The class is the first of its kind offered at Bowdoin. It was initially proposed by Eliza Novick-Smith ’14 and Chelsea Shaffer ’14, who were inspired by the Bard Prison Initiative, a program offering college degrees to inmates in New York prisons. Last year, Novick-Smith and Shaffer pursued a collaborative independent study to learn more about the correctional system in the United States and to design a plan for the course. 

“As much as we’re a little bubble here, Bowdoin wants to expand that bubble, and it seemed like this was the kind of thing that already worked with what Bowdoin is about,” Novick-Smith said.
Ultimately the proposal for the course found its way to Pritchard, who had previous experience working in prisons as an undergraduate. Pritchard had tried in the past to start a similar course at the Women’s Center of the MCC, but had been unable to do so.

After hearing the proposal for the course, “we decided we would do what we could to make it happen,” she said.

Pritchard said that, as a College that works towards the common good, Bowdoin should encourage students to be engaged, and that this course helped to facilitate that.

The model for the course was a prison exchange program at Temple University. With funding from the College, Pritchard was able to travel to Temple University last summer and complete training to teach the course, which Bowdoin then approved as a one-time-only class.

Pritchard chose the topic of citizenship for the class since both Bowdoin and inside students have  experienced citizenship in some way.

However, she also said that both groups have “very different experiences and a very different sense of the exclusions and entitlements of citizenship.”

Bowdoin students who wished to take the class had to receive approval from Pritchard. In addition, she worked with the prison administration to select the inside students. The administration selected numerous candidates, who Pritchard then met with as a group. Twelve inside students were ultimately chosen, although three had to leave over the course of the semester for personal reasons.

The class, which meets on Friday afternoons, is organized as a seminar, and is heavily discussion-based. All students complete weekly writing assignments, although there are also two longer essays that only Bowdoin students must write. 

Pritchard and the Bowdoin students reported initial awkwardness between the groups of students, but said that they quickly became comfortable with one another.

“After the first week, it was pretty relaxed,” said David Steury ’15, adding that the classroom environment is “collegial.”

Pritchard and the students praised the open classroom atmosphere and the candor that both groups of students bring to the discussion.

“Discussion certainly turns much more on people’s personal opinions and experiences than it does in a normal class,” said Novick-Smith.

“I think both inside students and outside students come to the class very much excited to engage in lively discussion,” said Sam King ’14, another student in the class.

“There’s generally a corrections officer in the room, and on a certain level I think we wish there weren’t,” said Steury. “I think the inmates would speak more freely.” 

Overall, Bowdoin students said they have appreciated the educational opportunities the class affords them.

“It’s been one of the most unique and, I think, will be one of the most important learning experiences I’ll have at Bowdoin,” said Shaffer.

“We can get a perspective that we don’t normally get here and really expand who we’re talking to,” said Steury.

Inside students also expressed their appreciation for the class.

“I hope that whoever reads this will understand the importance of the opportunity this program provides,” one student wrote in a letter to Novick-Smith about his experience, adding that the it had given him “the skills that [he was] going to need in overcoming the hurdles caused by my incarceration and felon status.”

Pritchard said that she was “committed to doing this again,” possibly at the Women’s Center of the MCC, although the future of the Inside-Out program at Bowdoin is still unclear. Novick-Smith and Shaffer have noted student interest and are working to find professors who would teach a similar class in the future. 

“I think things went better than I thought they would,” said Shaffer. “I thought it might be scarier, or I wouldn’t be able to connect with the visitors, or there would be a very obvious difference between us all, and I haven’t found that.”

Novick-Smith met with Associate Dean for Faculty Jennifer Scanlon last week, but does not yet have comment from the dean’s office on the future of the program. 

Editor’s note: Eliza Novick-Smith ’14 is an associate editor of the Orient, but was not involved in the production or editing of this article.