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History professor helps deconstruct the prison industrial complex

July 07, 2014

This past fall, Lewis & Clark successfully completed its second course with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program taught by one of the college’s American historians, Associate Professor Reiko Hillyer, at the Columbia River Correctional Institution. Lori Pompa created the first model for the course at Temple University in 1997, and it has since grown to include universities all over the country.

The exchange brings together equal parts “outside” college students and “inside” students—incarcerated felons at a correctional facility—to meet inside of a prison and engage in a semester-long college course together. The subjects of the courses vary, but Hillyer’s class studied the political and social history of the criminal justice system in America, beginning in the colonial period and ending with an examination of the current “boom” in prison populations. She focused on the ethnic underpinnings of incarceration that carry over from convict labor systems in the New South, and encouraged students to imagine a better, more humane system of rehabilitation and redress for the future. Additionally, this was the first year that Inside-Out students at the prison were able to receive college credit for their coursework.

This class is not the only indication that Lewis & Clark is turning its attention to the problems associated with a skyrocketing incarceration rate and the shocking expansion of the prison-industrial complex. This past year’s Ray Warren symposium changed its name from the multicultural symposium to the Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies, and hosted scholars, activists, and professionals whose work deals with the theme of “Police States and Prison Nations.”

Keynote speaker, Dylan E. Rodriguez, professor of ethnic studies at University of California at Riverside, gave a presentation titled “Inhabiting the Impasse: Incarceration, Insurgencies, and the Logic of Racial Genocide” that articulated the underlying endeavors of both the symposium and the Inside-Out course. He spoke about the importance of collective and strategic thought, of collaborative problem solving, and the need for raising awareness about the subtle discourses of power that we receive through mass media.

Both the Inside-Out course and the symposium advocated for a reexamination of the criminal justice system, and encouraged students to educate themselves about America’s booming prison population and the actions that they can take to combat its expansion.

A version of this article originally appeared in Footnotes, the history department newsletter.

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