State College Magazine

Journalism Behind Bars

Penn State students learn about incarcerated people by going to the source — and vice versa.

Photo by Georgianna Sutherland

There are no desks, no textbooks and definitely no computers. The single, frosted-over window does not look out on a bustling campus, but a tangled labyrinth of barbed wire fences.

Yet every week, a handful of students meet in this makeshift space, homework in hand, ready to learn.

This is Centre County Correctional Facility (CCCF), home to more than 110 men and women, where assistant teaching professor Shaheen Pasha leads a combined class of Penn State undergraduates and their incarcerated classmates in discussions on the intersections of journalism and the justice system from inside the jail walls.

The course, known as an inside-out class, was developed in collaboration between the Penn State Bellisario College of Communications and the Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI), a program operated through the College of Education that focuses on supporting both current and formerly incarcerated people through education and community engagement

The Restorative Justice Institute team

To protect the privacy of those incarcerated, every Penn State student must pass an interview process and sign a privacy contract — agreeing to not disclose anything said in class.

While the first Penn State inside-out class took place in fall 2021, the groundwork for the course had been laid years earlier.

Before joining the Penn State journalism faculty in 2019, Pasha held an equivalent position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, capping a career as a reporter for CNNMoney and as an international correspondent for Reuters, where she covered law and finance in the Middle East.

“That’s where I actually started working inside of prisons and jails and teaching journalism,” Pasha says.

This original iteration was developed with her former colleague, Razvan “Raz” Sibii, a Romanian reporter who teaches about incarceration and journalistic ethics at UMass Amherst.

“I had been volunteering at a local jail, and we created a four-credit course that brought in students from UMass to work alongside incarcerated students in Northampton, Massachusetts,” Pasha says. “That was super successful, and it made me start realizing that this was something I wanted to do on a much larger basis, at other jails and other prisons around the country.”

This realization has driven Pasha ever since and has informed her work outside the classroom — where she cofounded the Prison Journalism Project, a nonprofit newsroom that promotes the stories of incarcerated writers with long-time collaborator, Yukari Kane, in 2020.

From UMass Amherst, Pasha came to State College to teach in the College of Communications.

“I spent the entire time when I was called in for my interview,” Pasha says.

College of Communications Dean Marie Hardin proposed to Pasha an entirely new position that would allow her to bring her prison education work to Penn State.

“That was like a dream come true,” Pasha says.

Since then, Hardin has been “incredibly supportive,” according to Pasha, and has been a reliable advocate for her inside-out course.

“She’s absolutely brilliant and accomplished as a journalist, and we were looking to hire someone for the journalism department to join our faculty — and the work she was doing with prison journalism really caught my eye,” Hardin says.

“It’s forward-thinking, it addresses a very large and underserved population. There are incredible stories there that need to be told,” Hardin adds. “The need for journalism to ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ — there’s certainly some value there.”

Photo by Lily Tian Laregina for the College of Education at Penn State

During her interview process at Penn State, Pasha met RJI director Efraín Marímon, who would quickly become a close colleague.

Marímon, a Puerto Rican-Cuban lawyer and educator who came to Penn State in 2015 from Georgetown University, founded RJI after connecting with local educators and organizers, including Thomas Brewster, former executive director of CentrePeace.

In 2015, Marímon proposed providing educational support to some local correctional facilities to his dean and collaborated with colleagues in liberal arts and graduate students to support the reentry and education programming at the county facility.

Now, in addition to the inside-out journalism class, RJI offers a variety of courses in creative writing, legal literacy and entrepreneurship, among other topics. These programs are held inside local correctional facilities and are led by select Penn State faculty and graduate students.

“I think education is a powerful tool, and one that should be available to all people,” Marímon says. “And given the proximity of Penn State to multiple correctional facilities, I think it’s part of our obligation … both in terms as a land-grant university and as an ethical responsibility.”

Marímon’s background in teaching K-12 public school students and providing legal education to underserved populations led him to understand “education as a way to address larger-scale social issues.” His time with the Street Law legal support clinic at Georgetown University, which included working with people incarcerated at a local jail in Washington, D.C., helped him formulate the plan.

“That was the first time I started to think about how we can be thinking about education more broadly in terms of accessibility for individuals who are often left out of that conversation,” Marímon says.

Since Marímon’s introduction to Pasha, the duo has enjoyed a productive friendship.

“It made sense; it was a natural connection,” Marímon says. “She had taught several inside-out classes, and we were interested in bringing her on to do some other work with RJI.”

Pasha’s experience in leading inside-out classes made for a seamless fit with Marímon’s educational mission for RJI.

“I know Shaheen cares a lot about the opportunities to work with incarcerated students and I know she sees journalism as a way of providing a voice for students,” he says. “I think it’s important for individuals to have a space to be heard.”

The inside-out curriculum was synthesized from Pasha’s jail education experience at UMass Amherst, and Marímon’s training from the Inside-Out Center, a Temple University program dedicated to preparing educators for facilitating inside-out classes at their respective universities.

Penn State students meet once a week with their incarcerated classmates inside CCCF to discuss fundamental journalism techniques and ethics, the portrayal of the prison system in mass media and their personal experiences with the justice system.

In lieu of traditional exams and homework, the norm for a three-credit course, the 10 Penn State students were assessed on their participation in in-class discussions, reflection essays on assigned reading material and, as a final project, an opinion column about the necessity of justice system reform.

While the capstone project of the semester is an opinion piece, students are free to draw their own conclusions from their in-class discussions.

From the very beginning of the semester, Pasha establishes that she is not there to indoctrinate students with a particular viewpoint or political ideology, but to encourage an open dialogue about the intersection of incarceration and news media.

“This was an educational opportunity; we’re not there to burn things down; we’re there to teach, that’s the primary goal, and to show how journalism is a really great teaching tool,” Pasha says. “We’re coming in there to give incarcerated people the tools to be able to tell their own stories and to express themselves.”

Instead of providing students a certain narrative about the justice system, Pasha works as a neutral facilitator, prompting students to share their own views and experiences.

“I’m not going in there to do investigative work, because there’s a role for that, but that’s not the role I feel is important in the class I teach,” Pasha says. “What is important is giving them the tools that, when they get out, are also going to be useful in any kind of career. If you’re a good writer, if you’re able to express yourself, being able to critically think — these are useful in any field, and I think journalism really allows you to do that.”

Even beyond the potential career-readiness aspect of the course, there are emotional and psychological benefits for incarcerated students as well.

“It shows incarcerated people that their stories matter, which is helpful just from a therapeutic standpoint, and it’s helpful to show that people care, that’s really the point of the class,” Pasha says.

This belief — that the power of providing individuals with the tools to tell their own stories and self-advocate can supersede any boundary — is at the core of Pasha’s work, spanning her classroom, her work with PJP and now into CCCF.

This process has not been without hurdles, especially since the first iteration of the inside-out class in 2021 was held on Zoom due to CCCF pandemic visitation restrictions.

“It was interesting and I am very happy it worked because it could have very easily not worked,” Pasha says. “It was challenging. We had six (Penn State) students — they were fantastic. And we started with nine students inside CCCF and they were all sitting around a table with one computer screen. It was a lot of logistics and I was worried how it was going to work.”

This arrangement proved difficult, since one of the goals of the course is to merge the Penn State and CCCF students together into one combined class, to dissolve the distinction between incarcerated and nonincarcerated.

Although the remote format required an adapted curriculum, the course has been a resounding success, according to Pasha.

“My goal is to make this a continuous thing,” says Pasha. “I think that it is such an important initiative for both people from Penn State and inside CCCF to understand how important their stories are.”

While the inside-out course is currently offered once a year, Pasha hopes to add additional sections, to allow more students to participate.

“If you really want to have criminal justice reform, and you want to improve conditions for everyone, you need to not have mass incarceration be this hidden taboo people are unaware of,” Pasha says. “By allowing incarcerated people to have a say, you can really have a better idea of what their needs are.”

This approach works in tandem with the deliberate inclusion of Penn State students with their CCCF classmates, which can help expose the subconscious stereotypes and biases that result in poor decisions about mass incarceration, according to Pasha.

“Journalism is something that is very frightening to people who aren’t used to it or have only seen the negative side of it, the tabloid side,” Pasha says. “My goal is to show journalism as a force for good — in showing humanity, and I want to bring that humanity out through these classes.”

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