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UIC Law students seek to end mass incarceration through education

UIC Law students

UIC Law students participated in a transformative learning experience called Inside-Out in support of the university’s continuous advocacy for restorative justice.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange program was created 25 years ago by Lori Pompa at Temple University and has since developed into an international program in scope.

With a mission to end mass incarceration through education, the program seeks to take higher education students who are on the “outside” into a local correctional facility where they can learn, study and teach law principles to residents on the “inside.” (The Inside-Out program refers to incarcerated people as the inside “residents.”) The goal is to equip student residents with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed when they return to the outside world.

After participating in the Inside-Out program at Howard University, University of Illinois Chicago Dean of Libraries Rhea Ballard-Thrower was excited to bring this program to UIC Law after hearing about the university’s extensive restorative justice work. Ballard-Thrower, a former law librarian and member of the UIC Law faculty, titled her course, “Students in Jail.” The course is designed to break down barriers, biases and prejudgments by bringing together students and residents from diverse cultures and backgrounds and creating an environment conducive to learning and connecting on a human level. After a year of extensive training and certifications, the Inside-Out program is available to UIC Law students.

“Whenever the time comes for the residents to leave the facility, we want them to have the confidence of knowing they can complete collegiate work and understand law school curriculum,” Ballard-Thrower said. “And we hope for those student residents that are interested in an education, to pursue a higher education, whether an associate or a bachelor’s, when they return to the outside.”

Ballard-Thrower’s semesterlong hands-on course allowed law students to connect with residents at the Cook County Department of Corrections Men’s Facility Division 11. Due to COVID-19 protocols, the course was held online once a week. The students learned and discussed such topics as legal research and writing, primary and secondary resources, risk assessment algorithms, and the implications of newly implemented laws, such as cash bail reform (the Illinois SAFE-T Act).

Near the end of the semester, students complete a group project, which is an important part of the course. The law students and the inside residents worked in teams to present their research on the SAFE-T Act. The Department of Corrections permitted the law students to meet the residents in-person and work on their group projects at the facility.

For the last session, Ballard-Thrower hosted an in-person graduation ceremony at the facility where the students were able to showcase everything they’ve learned. The law students earned course credit, while the inside residents received a certificate of completion.

“I was able to learn how to read, write and understand legal citations. It used to look like a foreign language to me. Now if I am requesting information from the legal library, I know how to write out my request in a specific way that gets me the results I need. Prior to that, my request would get thrown out because it was not in the proper format,” a student inmate said.

“This class definitely opened my eyes. As soon as we left class, we would immediately start recapping and doing our homework. The other guys would be like ‘Why are you all so focused over there?’ and it started generating interest to other people to want to study the law as well. I can’t wait to share everything I’ve learned with my family and other friends that are locked up so hopefully it can change their situation as well,” another student inmate said.

The Inside-Out program also shed a new light for UIC Law students who would be conducting this kind of work and research upon pursuing their legal careers post law school graduation.

“If I can convince the law students to do this kind of work once they graduate, there is no stopping them,” Ballard-Thrower said.