Erica Arndt scoots forward in her seat, ready to share with the class her take on this week’s reading.
In shorts and a maroon T-shirt, hair pulled back, she blends into the landscape of a college class learning about the criminal justice system. Arndt is one of the first to speak up in this recent night class, and she’ll do so a few more times before her professor moves on to another topic.
“I feel like the thing about the prison system is people lose their compassion,” says Arndt, 33, looking out to the 27 other students taking the college sociology course. “They come in, and they have all these great ideas ... and what kind of great guard they’re going to be, what kind of warden or deputy warden. … Then (they) become just another person working in the system, and we become just another person in the system.”
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Arndt is inmate 0083280 at the Topeka Correctional Facility for women. Two drug convictions in Cowley County put her there, serving a seven-year term.
She’s also a second-time student in Jacob Bucher’s class, which the associate professor at Baker University holds inside the prison each year, mixing students on the inside with traditional college students from the outside.
Today, after a semester of long papers, rich class discussions and final projects, Arndt and 13 other inmates — as well as 14 Baker students — will be recognized at a ceremony inside the prison.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange program will “graduate” its 100th inmate.
All students will get a T-shirt, a certificate and three hours of college credit. Plus words from a teacher who current and past students say has helped tear down stereotypes and perceived differences between people behind bars and those on the other side.
“During the semester, they become more than just the inside students — they’re classmates,” said Baker graduate Katie Sellers, who took the course as an outsider in 2010 and 2011. “They come from so many different backgrounds, circumstances. The conversation is more rich, more raw. Honest.”
So much more relevant and personal, Bucher said, than if he were standing at a lectern, reading from a textbook.
“The benefit of this is learning about the criminal justice system both from an academic perspective and an experience perspective,” said Bucher, who has been at Baker since 2007. “Understanding what people go through, how they live.”
Crimes committed by the inside students range from money crimes to drug offenses and even murder. But in the classroom, they’re known simply by their first names: Amber, Jennifer, Erica and Tamara.
And the outside students — Diego, Shelby, Brittany and Trey — have become their friends. Classmates they can share ideas and opinions with.
“It’s just such a blessing,” said Arndt, standing in the hall of the prison building where the sociology class is held. “Just to have the opportunity to come in here once a week and to feel normal, even if it’s just a few hours.
“Just to feel like I’m a part of something that’s bigger than this.”
‘We’re all just people’
The first class each semester starts the same way. Bucher puts the students from Baker in a circle. The students from inside the prison form a circle around them.
As the circles face each other, and one student is face to face with another student, the questions between them begin.
What’s your favorite movie? Favorite book?
“It’s almost like speed dating,” said Carly Berblinger, who will graduate from Baker later this month and has been in Bucher’s class at the prison twice as an outsider. The professor rotates topics so students can take the class more than once.
After a short time, one circle rotates slightly and two different students face each other.
What’s your favorite quality about yourself? What do you admire most about yourself?
The answers start to come more easily, opening a line of communication that strangers from different backgrounds often don’t have.
Berblinger grew up in a small Kansas town and didn’t know much about the criminal justice system or inmates when she first took the class in the fall of 2013.
“In our first encounter, we realize we’re all just people,” she said. “We all like books and movies. Our dreams are this and our quirks are that.”
The line between the inside and outside begins to blur. And it becomes easier to relate, to share.
It’s what Bucher envisioned when he started the program in 2009.
He had learned about the concept at a conference and thought it could benefit students on both sides of the prison walls. They could hear another perspective on topics such as criminal justice, gender and sexuality and social identity.
For the first two years of the program, inside students didn’t get college credit, and Bucher and his wife covered the costs for their books.
After that, the university donated the cost of the credit hours as a service to the students and an alum offered to pay for the books. That gives inmates a chance to get college hours for free.
The class is popular. About 60 inmates and 40 Baker students applied for this semester.
Bucher interviews the outside students, and he and Deputy Warden Colene Fischli speak with those who apply from the prison. Bucher gauges why people want to take the class and whether they understand its purpose.
“There are some outside students, they want to be in class to study criminal minds,” Bucher said. “They’ve watched too many shows. They don’t understand what we are trying to do.”
Inside students look forward to the class, Fischli said, and she also sees the good Bucher’s class does with the students from Baker.
“They get a realistic glimpse of prison life,” Fischli said. “And it’s not what you see in ‘Oz’ or ‘Shawshank Redemption.’”
While he was a student at Baker, Tim Laughlin took Bucher’s class twice.
That first ride to the Topeka Correctional Facility in 2013, he admits, he was nervous. He’d never been to a women’s prison before. Would he get hurt? Would “catcalls” be aimed in his direction?
That all sounds crazy to him now, a year after he graduated from the university and is now a law school student.
“It transformed my whole idea of the criminal justice system and people inside of it,” Laughlin said. “It gave me a push to pursue law school, maybe help these people.”
Diego Ordonez, 21, of the Dallas area said Bucher’s class and what he’s learned inside the prison each week as an outsider will help him in a future law enforcement career. His perspective has changed.
“These people have stories, they’re deep,” Ordonez said. “They’ve been through more things in their life than I have so hearing their stories has just opened my eyes and changed my heart about people in general.”
Inside students aren’t always so sure Baker students will react that way to them.
“For me, at first I was scared,” said Amber Bell, who went to the University of Mississippi and who is serving time for embezzlement. “I thought they were going to judge us, look at us as an inmate, or a number. That they were going to look down on us because we were in prison and they weren’t.”
But that wasn’t the case, Bell said. “They truly have a heart for social work and sociology.”
After the class, Berblinger wanted to do more with the prison and used her time inside the system to inspire her capstone project her senior year. The English major created a five-week poetry workshop inside the Topeka facility. Eleven students took the course, expressing their thoughts and beliefs on paper.
“Prison is sometimes a place where people lose their voice,” she said. “So to bring that into a prison facility, that’s my dream for my whole life.”
For the inside students, Bucher sees an impact long after the class is over. A few have contacted him once they were released from prison and asked for letters of recommendation.
“They decided to further their education, and they referenced the class as a reason,” he said. “They’d say, ‘I never thought I could do college.’”
Because of Bucher, the students from Baker and the class that has brought them together, that’s what Arndt plans to do when she is released in late 2017.
“It’s been a large boost for my self esteem, my self worth,” she said. “It makes me feel smart. Like I still got it.”
Many times, she said, she’s been talked down to by people. “I’ve kept myself on the bottom. Put myself on the bench.”
But the Inside-Out program changed that.
During today’s final ceremony, the students will present their proposals to reform the overall “health” of the Kansas women’s prison system. Prison officials and Baker leaders will learn about their recommendations, which cover everything from medical care to building a relationship with the community.
For her part, Arndt expects the ceremony will only further her resolve to go after higher education. Though she won’t have the money for school, she’s hopeful someone or some institution will see her passion to learn and help her out.
“For the first time in a really long time, I’ve had the opportunity to be proud of myself,” she said. “I know that I’m well on my way and I think a lot of that has come from this class.”