A Two-Way Street

Life and literature come together in a Russian literature class for students and incarcerated men taught inside prison walls.

Every Tuesday afternoon during the spring semester, 13 Bryn Mawr students piled into a couple of College vans and traveled 15 miles down 476 to the state correctional institution in Chester. There, with their professor José Vergara, they joined 14 incarcerated men for a three-hour class on Russian literature.

“Basically, we’re talking about these big topics in Russian literature,” says Vergara, an assistant professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr. It’s a class like any other on campus, he says. “We recognize that we’re in a different environment, but we’re still analyzing the texts and doing close readings and many of the things we do in our literature classrooms. We just happen to have some perspectives and some individuals in the class that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Vergara’s class is part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which was started at Temple University in 1997 as a way to create opportunities for people inside and outside of prison to have transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue.

Vergara became aware of the program a few years ago, while a visiting professor at Swarthmore. He had taught in a prison before, while in graduate school in Wisconsin, but then he had taught classes made up entirely of incarcerated students. With this model, the instructors take college students into the prisons and hold a class together.

“That was very important to me, to bring in new voices,” says Vergara. “I also think it’s valuable for students to learn more about social and cultural issues we often don’t know much about beyond the cliches in TV and film.”

Sophie Friedenwald ’23 says she decided to take the class because it was an opportunity to interact with and learn from incarcerated people. “I was especially interested in pushing my education outside of Bryn Mawr and into communities where I had never had the opportunity to learn before,” she says.

“I was surprised by how energized our class discussions were and how much people were willing to participate and share,” says Mary Pastore ’25. “There was never a dull moment, and we found ourselves laughing together frequently.”

“By its very nature, this is a radical intervention in the U.S. carceral system. It’s not built to have these kinds of conversations.” — José Vergara

Reading Crime and Punishment yielded particularly rich discussions informed by the different experiences and backgrounds of the students. “Ideally you have a two-way street, with both sides sharing experiences,” he says. “It’s not one side coming in to teach the technical stuff and one side just sharing their trauma.”

The students also had different approaches to writing. The outside students, says Vergara, tend to have a traditional view of what a paper should be. “When they encounter different kinds of writing from the inside students, who are generally more open to investing themselves into these papers, it’s a nice exchange of perspectives and recognition that you can write in different ways.”

Though the class can never be entirely equitable, since half of the students are incarcerated, Vergara says he tries to mitigate inequities where he can. For example, since most of the inside students don’t have regular access to computers or typewriters, he has all the students write their essays and responses by hand. “It’s a small gesture, but I think they appreciate it,” he says.

He has also received approval to grant course credit for the inside students. “There’s a long list of people who did a lot of work to make this happen,” says Vergara, “And I’m so grateful, and I know the students are too.”