OSU sociology class offered at Oregon State Penitentiary

A sociology class titled SOC 444 is offered to OSU students, as well as Oregon State Penitentiary inmates at the Penitentiary. Prerequisites for the class include previously taking and passing SOC 204 with a grade C or higher, and being at Junior standing.

Arianna Schmidt, News Contributor

Students, inmates learn in unison, discuss the prison industrial complex.

Being an adult in custody is not all about being locked in a cell, but about serving the community from inside the prison. Clubs and organizations inside the Oregon State Penitentiary, led by adults in custody themselves, provide the opportunity for convicts that fit requirements to help better the world outside of their cells.

OSU offers a sociology class called “Inside-Out” that is held at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem once a week. According to Sara, a senior majoring in sociology with a focus in criminal justice, the class is offered nationwide and is intended for those studying sociology to get involved in the prison system and to apply what they have learned to the prison industrial complex.

“The goal at the end is to do various large projects so that we can help the communities inside and out in various ways,” Sara said.

The class is offered to students at OSU, as well as the adults in custody at the penitentiary. This year, the class houses 13 OSU students and 13 students from inside the prison. According to Jaqueline, a senior in the course studying sociology, the class is granted to those adults in custody who have had constant good behavior for two to three years and who are also involved with OSP activity clubs.

“Being a part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in a class where you can socialize with people who have been removed from society is a privilege,” Jaqueline said. “Our main focus is to let our community know the prison itself and how adults in custody are treated inside because a lot of the time we are not aware of the good things they actually do within the prison; half of the time we just hear all the negatives.”

Lessons in the class begin with a week of introductory tasks that get everyone comfortable with their surroundings. Then, various dialogue sessions are prompted with questions about the prison industrial system over the next few weeks, according to Sara. These include what OSU students think about the prison system and commentary from the adults in custody. Students are able to express how they would change the system if they were able to, Sara added.

“The inside guys are all sanctioned leaders, whether they’re presidents or secretaries of clubs,” Sara said. “There’s eleven various clubs whether they’re focused on culture, heritage, background, as well as support groups such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and Narcotics Anonymous as well. We get to learn about really positive and rehabilitative clubs that are within the prison that some people may not ever know about.”

According to Tonya Gushard, the public information officer at the Oregon State Penitentiary, the class teaches new skills to adults in custody and allows them to grow personally.

“It gives them an opportunity for prosocial interaction with someone from the community and teaches them how to communicate appropriately,” Gushard said in an email.

Gushard also confirmed that adults in custody are able to take the class when they have no sex offense convictions, have clear conduct and are involved in other programs, such as clubs, within the prison.

“It also provides for something constructive to do with their time, and since it’s incentive-based, they have to abide by the rules for a certain amount of time to get into the program and then maintain that good behavior to stay in,” Gushard said in an email. “This makes for a safer environment for everyone.” 

The professor that teaches the Inside-Out Sociology course is Michelle Inderbitzen, a criminologist and professor at OSU, according to Jaqueline. Inderbitzen created the class over 10 years ago and chooses who is able to enroll based on behavior and who she thinks would be a good fit for the class. Anyone can be a part of this class, according to Jaqueline.

“We have a few students who are not sociology students, so it’s open to anyone who is interested in being a part of this opportunity,” Jaqueline said.

According to Sara, it was intimidating at first sharing a class with adults in custody. She had very personal questions and did not want to offend them by asking what she was curious about.

“Being able to have them be so open about it and not offended by anything was very comforting after the first week of introductions,” Sara said. “And I would say no, I’ve never made so many friends in a class as I have this one.”

Jaqueline says, she has been around adults in custody before she took the class, but she was still nervous to interact with the individuals from the OSP. She was not afraid of the people and did not want to judge them, but these individuals were unlike the type of people she would usually spend her time with on a daily basis.

“These people are locked up, so you know, they’re far from a society, so having the privilege of getting to meet someone despite whatever they’ve done does really make a difference,” Jacqueline said. “It has made me believe that people do deserve a second chance, no matter what you’ve done.”

According to Sara, the best part about the Inside Out class is getting to experience an opportunity most people would not normally have available to them and also may not have the desire to experience. Additionally, Sara is proud of the work that the adults in custody are putting in as far as club fundraising for their various charities.

“I think having an opportunity to meet the people you’re learning the theories about is really powerful and getting their personal stories out there,” Sara said. “I also think that learning about the incredible things that these clubs have been doing has also been very powerful for me, because there’s so many obstacles in their way. Being able to learn about that and see how they’re overcoming that just shows a lot of tenacity on their side.”

The last names of the students in the class are not being printed due to potential safety concerns.