Walking into the prison classroom for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. I knew that taking an Inside Out class was a cool learning opportunity, but I couldn’t imagine how much it would change my life. One thing was apparent, though: this was no ordinary college class.

Each Tuesday, my classmates and I would travel for an hour and a half to Oregon State Correctional Institution. We would go through security, check in, and make our way to the classroom. During the first class, I remember feeling overwhelmed at the sheer amount of students walking in. We had a rotating discussion so that each outside student talked to each inside student. “There’s so many people!” I thought, “How am I supposed to remember everyone’s name?"

However, I quickly realized that I would learn everyone’s name and so much more. Through each conversation, they were revealing a piece of themselves that I would take along with me, and I would do the same. What made these interactions so unique was the variety of backgrounds that people came from. Sure, college is diverse, but it’s easy to find people like you and trap yourself in a bubble. In there, it’s harder to do. What made the class especially remarkable was how you could listen to voices and narratives that typically aren’t heard, since most college classes consist of students with similar ages and academic backgrounds.

Often times in large lecture halls, it’s easy to disappear. No one would notice your absence, and class would not be impacted. However, in Inside Out, each student carries a different perspective that is crucial for the functioning of the class. Instead of having a teacher lecture from endless powerpoint slides, students collaborated and learned not only with each other, but from each other. Each person had a unique presence that could not be replaced. Essentially, we became a community that was special because of each person in it.

Inside Out is not only eye opening for the outside students, it’s beneficial for the inside students as well. As of March 2017, there are over 2.3 million people imprisoned in the U.S. alone. Additionally, 68% of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release, so a large percentage of people that make it out of prison find their way back in soon after. This means that there are still things that can be done to help incarcerated people succeed in society.

A study by the RAND Corporation shows that prisoners that participate in educational programs are 43% less likely to return to prison within three years of release and have a 13% higher chance of finding employment. Additionally, those that participate in vocational training programs have a 28% higher chance of being employed after their release. Since many prisoners do not have a high school diploma or GED certificate, it’s much harder for them to find jobs. Education opportunities in prison lead to an overall reduction in recidivism because it helps provide the knowledge and skills that aid in reintegrating into society.

Inside Out helps by providing inside students with the chance to learn with outside students. Having a program like this assists with rehabilitation and provides an unique opportunity for both inside and outside students to learn from each other. It can also help inside students earn degrees, since some courses offer college credit. Overall, prison education programs reduce costs associated with recidivism, saving $4 to $5 for every $1 invested.

Often times, we are so polarized by our differences that it is easy to forget that we’re all people. By taking this life-changing class, I realized that underneath all the masks we wear, we all share the same humanity and have the same needs. This class has changed my worldview and has impacted me in ways that I will never forget. Not only has it been a learning experience for me, it helps prisoners receive education and increases the chance that they can reintegrate into society. I hope that you have the opportunity to take an Inside Out class and look behind prison walls as well. For more information about Inside Out, visit their website.