Officer Training Behind Prison Walls
By Norman Conti, Ph.D., Colleen Bristow, and Tim Novosel
From 2009 through 2016, the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice—affiliated with Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—devoted considerable effort to developing, negotiating, and funding an ancillary curriculum for new officers.1 Specifically, this endeavor focused on synthesizing the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (Inside-Out) with police academy training.2 A dynamic, ongoing partnership began between the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP), Duquesne University, and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
The resulting program, Police Training Inside-Out (PTI-O), brings police recruits together with incarcerated men to study as peers in a seminar behind prison walls. This course focuses on helping to improve the professional socialization of officers by lessening the spread of unfortunate stereotypes within their occupational culture.3
Police Training Inside-Out
The original Inside-Out program focuses on teaching university courses in correctional settings. Enrollees include traditional college students and an equivalent number of learners selected from prison populations. One of the program’s goals entails generating a shift in the consciousness of each participant, with reducing the stigmatization of incarcerated people central to the experiential process.
Courses begin with a discussion of labels and a mandate that negative terms, such as “inmate,” be exchanged for “inside student,” while the rest of the class is referred to as “outside students.” Starting with this relabeling, participants start to realize that neither group can reduce the other to the one-dimensional image previously assumed.
As students interact over the course of a semester, their views of each other change. Incarcerated persons no longer appear as portrayed in popular culture, but as people with lives and families beyond prison walls. College students become something more than “children of privilege” incapable of understanding why individuals succumb to the culture of street crime. In time, initial changes in how the two groups see each other affect how participants view themselves, their futures, and their potential impact on society.
Similarly, PTI-O involves an academic course where outside students (police officers or recruits) and an equal number of inside learners (incarcerated men) attend class together once a week inside of a prison. Adding this innovative experiential learning curriculum to traditional academy training gives recruits the opportunity to develop a more nuanced professional vision during their initial socialization. For the inside students, their coursework holds the secondary benefit of empowering them to see the humanity in a group of officers whom they previously had recognized only as adversaries or oppressors.
PTI-O represents an attempt to build better understanding between officers and communities. Through continued interactions, recruits and their imprisoned classmates begin to understand each other beyond mere stereotypes. The program aims to transform the way new officers will view the people they arrest and the neighborhoods they patrol—by using the prism of prison to alter their professional vision—while also changing how incarcerated persons look at the police. The curriculum maintains a rigorous public safety focus with an emphasis on restorative justice while functioning as a space for dialogue where the two groups can come to see each other and themselves as people with vested interests in their shared communities.
Dr. Conti is a professor of sociology at Duquesne University and a founding member of the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Sergeant Bristow serves with the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bureau of Police.
Sergeant Novosel serves with the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bureau of Police.
The program was piloted in fall 2016 with six veteran officers and six men facing life sentences in prison. Thanks to a positive reception from PBP command staff, PTI-O has become a standard training module for all of the agency’s recruit cohorts. Additionally, since its institutionalization, the program has improved through modules offered in partnership with the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center and other community groups.
PTI-O’s encouragement of officers and incarcerated persons to develop a more balanced view of each other certainly represents a novel idea. Faruq, a wise and compassionate man who has served over four decades in prison, explained the accompanying challenges.
When Professor Conti first floated the idea of Inside-Out with police officers, instead of college students, the response was not overly positive. The convicts listened to his proposal, but I could still sense the reluctance in the classroom. Some of us had briefly mentioned our reaction to Norm’s idea, but no one I had talked with had decided yet. A couple men eventually refused, while others spoke of their reluctance and apprehension, how they felt it would be extremely uncomfortable. I just listened, apprehensive of such a volatile mix, but highly intrigued. Could this simple idea make a difference?
I still have a visceral memory of when my community…actually fought with the cops fist-on-fist…in the hot summer of 1968. I always wondered why no shots were fired that day. Maybe the cops were told to stand down, or maybe they were enjoying it as much as we were, or maybe none of us pulled guns because they didn’t. I don’t know, but we fought for half an hour. It felt like an eternity, and it felt good. Hand-to-hand, blow-for-blow, young people, old people. Cops throw you in the paddy wagon, the people drag you out. Little kids throwing rocks, old women and men hollering and cursing…. Eventually, more and more cops came, and the people scattered. Yet, in hindsight, it seemed like something was spoken that day. Something about those times, the turbulent ’60s. We had lots of meetings with city hall after that, and many changes were made, only to revert back to status quo a few brief years later, when the talking stopped.
So yeah, WOW! Could we speak to them in an academic setting, maybe fight with our minds and find an opening, a start, a real conversation that would lead to a better understanding of each other? I could tell them of how when I was a 9-year-old boy just walking down the street, the cops would stop me, asking me where I was going and what I was doing, as if I did not understand it was only because I was a black boy in a white neighborhood. I understood. Could I explain how those kinds of experiences made me feel like I was under surveillance and suspicion every time a police car came in sight for the rest of my days? Could they understand why I ran into that fight in the summer of ’68? Could we find that old illusive, ever-sought-after, rarely captured common ground? I sure wanted to give it a go.
Despite—or perhaps because of—his experiences with the police, Faruq was excited about the course. On the first day, he chose a seat between the two toughest-looking officers. He might have been thinking of that day in the summer of 1968 when he spotted those officers, but it is hard to know for sure.
Tiffany, a patrol and community resource officer who participated in the pilot course, provided a detailed description of the destigmatization that occurred during her experience in the classroom.
Throughout the past few months, I have had the privilege and honor of working with six men who, as inside students, have given me new perspectives on the criminal justice system, on restorative justice practices, and on life. While all of these inside students have been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole, none of them has given up on living. Quite the opposite, they have all dedicated themselves to improving quality of life. Four of my inside classmates work as peer counselors, and one is a yoga teacher, all working within the prison to help their peers. All six of the inside students serve as members of a think tank that focuses on public safety issues, thinking about ways to improve life for the greater good.
From the first week when one of the Inside-Out students told me his favorite part of nature was grass because he missed it, to another explaining how he uses poetry and writing to keep hope alive, these men have given me perspective on living. We are all humans and, therefore, inherently complex and prone to mistakes. Certainly, we are all responsible for our choices, but people can learn from their mistakes and become better people as a result. The Inside-Out program has not only taught me about a different side of the criminal justice system but also about the complexities of individuals and their circumstances.
Peg’s tough upbringing prepared her to become a police officer. Additionally, she is a survivor of domestic violence and the loving mother of an African American son who has struggled with addiction and engaged in crime. She shared positive reflections on her experiences with the course.
I was apprehensive when I learned that I was accepted into Police Training Inside-Out. Everyone in jail hates cops, right? University professors are bleeding heart liberals. They will never listen to my words or take seriously my ideas. How would six cops, six lifers, and professors be able to sit in a room together and talk openly in regard to restorative justice?
Let’s just say that I was apprehensive for no reason. I have been amazed at the respect and openness each time that we met. Where I thought that the insiders would sit across the room and glare at me, each man actually walked up to me, looked me in the eye, and shook my hand. Every session has ended with that same respect that we all now feel for each other.
The men that I have come to know in this program are brilliant. These men have taken responsibility for their actions, and they have turned a terrible situation into an opportunity to learn and mentor and make a difference. These men live in a stifling, demeaning, emasculating environment, but they have succeeded. They have become educated, and in the last several weeks, they have all educated me.
“…participants start to realize that neither group can reduce the other to the one-dimensional image previously assumed.”
During the closing ceremony for the course, Peg took part in a poignant interaction. Standing at a podium, preparing to read the reflection offered above to an audience of correctional and law enforcement administrators, Peg realized that she had forgotten her glasses and scurried over to Khalifa—one of the fiercest voices in the program—and asked him for his. Stunned, he reacted slowly, so Peg quickly pulled them from his eyes and headed back to read her piece. A smile spread across his face, and those who knew him laughed.
In his reflection on the course, Khalifa shared some insights.
First and foremost, for me personally, [this course] presented a unique opportunity to understand and forgive a very unfortunate incident involving police that scarred my mind as a very young child. Because of this class, I am able to separate the past from the hopeful future by way of sharing this with others who feel all police [are] biased and supporters of oppression by means of violence and terror.
I exit this class feeling quite free of such feelings and know that police are people “just as we are.” Some make poor decisions by way of adrenal rush, some in honest fear, and, yes, some from poor teaching and unaccountability. I am thankful for this opportunity, most impressed by the honesty and answers from participating officers, and would relish the possibility of continuing discussions in finding ways to address problems, such as drug addiction and violence.
Khalifa’s long-term institutionalization began in a youth facility at 8 years old after seeing police brutally beat and arrest his parents. The idea of being so connected to an officer who would feel comfortable snatching the glasses from his face continues to bring him a smile.
Oscar, the youngest inside member of the group, offered a slightly more critical perspective.
On one hand, I believe that my time in this class will not affect the police’s view of the reformed in prison. On the other hand, I hold out hope that by doing this, they will see that people do change and make wrong decisions but that an offender should have a second chance at life once this is demonstrated. This class also shows me that I can sit in a room with [members of] a profession that I don’t totally agree with, but that I am able to find something that I have in common with these people. I believe even if the curtain of stigmatization comes down on both sides just a little, then progress is going in a good direction, and I believe the class has accomplished this, so I am thankful.
Perhaps because of the overwhelmingly positive student responses to the course, Oscar’s more measured evaluation should serve as a baseline for indicating what can be achieved through PTI-O. It would be naive to argue that PTI-O can be the “magic bullet” of police training that is called for in so many of the critical responses to policing. However, if employed with humility, the fundamental elements of PTI-O could be an important mechanism in generating the sort of sustained dialogue necessary for authentic relationships.
“PTI-O represents an attempt to build better understanding between officers and communities.”
In summer 2018, an esteemed police scholar discussed PTI-O on his podcast.4 Since then, groups and individuals have asked for advice on starting their own program with either police officers or district attorneys.5
Agencies should start by seeking out and cultivating the sort of partnership the authors established as academics and training officers. At minimum, this collaboration requires an experienced Inside-Out instructor who can deal effectively with the police bureaucracy and a variety of officers. This individual, although likely sympathetic to incarcerated men, should understand the challenges faced by police and the professional culture in which they function.
The authors formed a team that garnered the necessary support from motivated leaders within both the police, prison, and university administrations that allows the program to exist. They were blessed with a prison administration that not only permitted them to develop their program but actually encouraged them at every step and continues to offer support going forward.
Police training officers interested in developing this sort of curriculum within their academy may expect resistance from some fellow officers who fear the program will make recruits “soft” and get them hurt on the street. The authors recommend offering a pilot course that includes academy staff and senior officers who can help sell the program to upper-level management. Further, a pilot course affords the opportunity to work out logistical issues, such as class size, number of course offerings, transportation, and scheduling.
The authors’ pilot course proved the most important factor in implementing and further developing the program. Bringing a small number of officers, including two sergeants from the training academy, was essential for establishing the sort of partnership needed to facilitate PTI-O. Also, involving an equal number of respected men serving life sentences lent credibility to the program among the general population of the institution.
One of the most important elements of the program is that both the incarcerated men and the police recruits receive actual college credit. This was a major negotiation, renegotiation, and ongoing negotiation between all parties to determine how course costs will be divided.
Police Training Inside-Out helps cultivate a mutual respect between the officers and incarcerated men who earn college credit while studying together behind prison walls. It proves valuable for new officers by allowing them to interact with and better understand the people they may encounter during the course of their duties. Inmates can get to know police officers and see them as more than rigid enforcers of the law. Hopefully, other jurisdictions will consider implementing similar programs and build bridges with the communities they serve.
“Hopefully, other jurisdictions will consider implementing similar programs and build bridges with the communities they serve.”
Dr. Conti can be reached at email@example.com, Sergeant Bristow at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Sergeant Novosel at email@example.com.
1 For additional information, see Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice, accessed October 16, 2019, http://ebthinktank.org.
2 For additional information, see Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, accessed October 16, 2019, https://www.insideoutcenter.org/index.html.
3 Norman Conti et al., “Criminal Justice Policy Inside-Out: An Initial Case Study in Education Among Police and Incarcerated Men,” The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles, July 22, 2019, accessed October 24, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0032258X19860421?journalCode=pjxa.
4 David A. Harris, host, “Transformation in Prison: The Inside-Out Program,” Criminal Injustice (podcast), July 10, 2018, accessed October 24, 2019, http://www.criminalinjusticepodcast.com/blog/2018/7/10/86-transformation-in-prison.
5 “Inside Criminal Justice Policy Presentation and Certificate Conferral Ceremony,” Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, April 26, 2018, accessed October 24, 2019, https://www.manhattanda.org/event/inside-criminal-justice-policy-presentation-certificate-conferral-ceremony/.