The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

2024 Commencement Student Speaker: Lea Tarzy
Alexandra Slofkiss: 2024 Commencement Soloist
Outstanding Senior Award: Bernadette Maramis
Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion: Gloria Sporea

Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion: Gloria Sporea

May 10, 2024

Excellence in Athletics Award: Meghan Quinn

Excellence in Athletics Award: Meghan Quinn

May 10, 2024

Excellence in the Arts Award: Joselyn Busato

Excellence in the Arts Award: Joselyn Busato

May 10, 2024

View All

“Why?”: A reflection on Inside Out

This past semester, I have had the honor of taking a poetry class through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The course took place in a local prison: 8 of the students came from Bucknell (“outside students”) and 8 of the students were incarcerated in the local prison (“inside students”). We met one afternoon each week within the prison for a series of discussions, writing exercises and sharing sessions on the subject of reading and writing poetry. Together, we established a foundation of trust and connection that allowed us to learn from each other.

Two conversations come to mind as I reflect on the Inside-Out Course. These conversations took place with two of the inside students (whom I will call Anne and Elizabeth) and will both undoubtedly impact my future interactions and perspectives. My conversation with Elizabeth consisted of a shared frustration over the systemic issues in the American government, specifically in the criminal justice and education systems. The conversation sparked me to consider topics that Elizabeth has had a burning fire for for years. Admittedly, I was scared to say the wrong thing, nervous that I didn’t know enough to have this conversation with someone who was so directly influenced by these pervasive and traumatizing systems. These fears, however, were insignificant compared to how rare it was to have the opportunity to converse with Elizabeth. So I pushed my anxieties aside as we spoke of restorative justice, mental and physical accessibility and access to literature. Elizabeth pushed me to learn more and reminded me that learning is only the first rung on the ladder of change. On the last day of the course, Elizabeth told me that although she won’t get to witness it, she looks forward to what I accomplish in regard to social justice.

When talking to Anne, we got into the details of life at the local prison. She talked about the small things we on the outside take for granted, like wading in the salty ocean or watching a natural phenomenon like a solar eclipse. We discussed the low wages at the prison (31-61 cents an hour) and the high prices of goods from the commissary (2 dollars per song and 60 dollars for the cheapest pair of shoes). Anne shared that, like me, she heals through music, but the prison often removes her access to songs she has purchased without any explanation or warning. This shocked me, and I instantly cried out “Why?” to which Anne calmly replied “Amira. If I spent my life here asking why, I would have gone crazy years ago.” Not only does this interaction show my naivete, it displays the resilience and patience that every inside student possesses. Inside students exist in a space where justice is rare and questions can’t be asked, an environment outside students can only begin to imagine.

While we read beautiful poetry from astounding poets, I learned the most by getting to know and reading the work of the inside students. I came to understand that they each had to shift their perspective of the world in order to find joy in each day. Anne shared with me that she wakes up every morning happy and feeling lucky to be alive and uses her painting and poetry as an outlet for her negative emotions. This positive demeanor made me reflect on myself and how the first thing I do when faced with any injustice is ask “Why?” to uncover how I could start to  change it. The simple act of asking “Why?” is a luxury I now know not to take for granted. I am lucky that, in a brutal and inequitable society, those around me encourage the imagination of a different world, a world that is whole and just.

Story continues below advertisement

I will remember the inside students by honoring what makes each of them unique. Elizabeth is caring, warm and always willing to patiently discuss with and teach me what she has learned. Elizabeth carries her warm demeanor to each and every one of her students when she tutors other incarcerated women in poetry and writing. She is a master of words after having spent three years reading only the dictionary and she now possesses the amazing ability to invent words such as “Godfidence.” Anne is kind and sunny, carrying her love for her late mother wherever she goes, including in her beautiful poetry. Emma is creative and inquisitive, and knows just about everything there is to know about religion. She loves calculus and the way numbers interact with each other and is always looking to learn and teach math. She truly listens to those around her, soaking up each word and showing every individual that they matter.

I could go on about the unique, talented and brilliant inside students. I share their qualities to show what sets them apart from one another in an environment that lumps them together into one negative entity. Their clothes, uniform, food and schedule neutralize and depersonalize these women into simply “inmates.” But they are so much more.

In the Inside-Out Course, we used poetry as a channel to express our differences in an environment that stifles creativity. Poetry is individuality: using the words only the poet possesses. No one else has Emma’s story, artistic ability and vision for combining the two into art. The Inside-Out Course urges us to harness our inner creative spirit for two hours of freedom a week.

Throughout the semester, the prison has canceled our class multiple times, often with no explanation. This has given us outside students a glimpse into the disappointment and frustration of not being able to ask “Why?”

It is hard for me to think of the upcoming afternoons when we no longer meet as a group, as each of the students thinks of our class and how quickly the semester went by. I believe the inside students I got to know each deserve a space like our class indefinitely, as do many other incarcerated individuals across the country. I strive to keep the inside students in my future poetry and social justice related work. All 16 students in the class worked to create a shared anthology of our poetry: a reflection of our connection and respect for one another. Although inside and outside students cannot stay in touch after the class has ended (this is a rule of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program), I hope to share this anthology with as many readers as possible, giving the inside students a voice outside the walls of the prison. If you have the chance to take an Inside-Out course, I urge you to apply. You will learn surprising things about yourself and the criminal justice system in this kind of experiential and community-engaged course. If you don’t have the opportunity, use this as another reminder of the importance and necessity of opening your eyes to the uncomfortable realities of the world and choosing to educate yourself about important issues like the criminal justice system. Join me in committing to constantly learning, growing and striving to enact change. I plan to never stop asking, “Why?”

Note: Please reach out to me if you would like to learn more about the course or read any of the poetry written by the inside or outside students. To learn more about Inside-Out courses in general, I encourage you to visit Insideoutcenter.org or check the Bucknell Course Catalog.

(Visited 92 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

The editorial board of The Bucknellian reserves the right to review all comments before they are posted on the website and remove any if deemed offensive, illegal or in bad taste. Comments left on our web pages are not necessarily in-line with the views expressed by the writer.
All The Bucknellian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *