November 13, 2019
The eighth episode of the Inside-Out Podcast features Joe Schwartz, who served fourteen years in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Joe shares how his experience of learning alongside students from Mount Aloysius College helped prepare him for life outside the walls. Thanks to Inside-Out instructor Professor Elizabeth Mansley and the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto for making this class possible. To get trained in the Inside-Out method of education and dialogue, apply to one of our Inside-Out Training Institutes.
The Inside-Out podcast is hosted by Dave Krueger from the international hub of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University.
DK: In this episode of the Inside-Out Podcast, I speak with Joe Schwartz, who served fourteen years in a Pennsylvania prison before he was granted clemency at the age of 65. Joe shares how his experience of learning alongside students from a local college helped prepare him for life outside the walls.
Joe Schwartz: Transition from prison to home begins while one is in prison – it’s a process that starts inside and continues beyond release. The importance of the Inside-Out program is that it provided me a pathway to reconnect with the world.
DK: I’m Dave Krueger from the international hub of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program based at Temple University in Philadelphia. And this is the Inside-Out Podcast. Stay tuned for the conversation with Joe Schwartz after this word by Tyrone Werts.
Audio Clip of Tyrone Describing the Program
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is a program that facilitates dialogue and education across social barriers. Inside out courses bring traditional college students and incarcerated students together in jails and prisons for a semester long of learning. These courses unite enthusiasm for learning helps students find their voice, and challenges students to consider what good citizenship requires. Since the first class in 1997 inside out has grown into an international network of nearly 1,000 trained instructors from across the US and several countries. Correctional and higher education institutions have partnered to create opportunities for more than 38,000 inside and outside students to move beyond the walls that separate them. We are more than a program we are changing the world.
JS: I’ve never been an optimist. That’s not to say I’m not hopeful. But from where I’m sitting optimists believe everything will be fine, no matter what. A belief that justifies doing nothing. Hopefulness on the other hand means we don’t know what is going to happen and in the uncertainty is room to act. For a man in prison, knowing what to do or how to connect to anything is a problem. The smallest light illuminates the darkest places and learning was that light for me. The ink had yet to dry on the chapter which was prison when Inside-Out entered the picture. My fellows in this program pointed the way to what connectedness looks like from behind a wall. When the moon was the only light I could see I learned from my peers that despite years of being isolated, I was a part of a greater whole. Yes, learning together was the glue, but in truth, the material we studied was a conduit for exchanges about greater things, more important things. Opening a door breaks down walls. Inside-Out is a platform where I could begin to open up. It was balm for the impotence and complacency of prison life. Inside-Out is a program of reflection and discovery. No matter what side of the fence you’re on, the greater good is informed by an exchange of views. After fourteen years of aimlessness, this program challenged me to show up, peel back the layers, and look at myself. The opportunity to be a mirror for my classmates changed the narrative. How easy it can be to take life for granted when you’re not a part of it. Connectedness is a habit of action and engagement. Thank you Inside-Out.
DK: Joe Schwartz, thank you for sharing that really beautiful reflection. And thank you for speaking with me today. Joe, you mentioned this notion of connectedness. How has this theme of connection or perhaps disconnection framed your experiences in prison?
JS: There’s many ways to frame the prison experience. Becoming institutionalized is a process that is necessary for anyone to survive in prison. Disconnecting from the outside world allowed me to focus on what was important in my life day-to-day in prison. However, the longer I was in prison the more entrenched that disconnect became. After 14 years I had established a life for myself which really didn’t run at the same pace – didn’t resonate at the same frequency as the world around me. The importance of the Inside-Out program is that it provided me a pathway to reconnect with the world. Prison is about custody. It’s not about rehabilitation. The notion of the penitentiary as a place for penitence died at the turn of the century. We have a vast system right now that is all about custody and security and has little to do with change. In fact prison can be time squandered for so many because of that inability to change. Prison can be empowering for some if they are motivated – if one is motivated to take advantage of the time and reflect and recalibrate. For so many it’s not that. What a waste of human life. Inside-Out is the opportunity to change that. Not just for the material that we study in collaboration with students from university or from college but it gives us an opportunity to really examine who we are in a larger context not just in the context of prison life.
DK: Joe how many years had you served in prison before you took your first college course through inside-out?
JS: 13 years.
DK: And what made you want to sign up for an Inside-Out course? How did you hear about it?
JS: I was really excited about it because after so many years of prison programming – “programming” – that seemed to be more smoke and mirrors than anything really substantial. I thought this would be an opportunity to explore something more substantive. A poster was up on a bulletin board and I wanted to enroll right away. I had never experienced higher education and this was an opportunity for me to do that in a setting that would allow me to focus in a way that perhaps, when I was in my youth, I wasn’t able to. I have an intellect that was not really stimulated in prison and this was an opportunity to, I thought, to sort of engage in that way. So after 13 years of prison programming, about re-entry and rehabilitation it turned out that Inside-Out was the only opportunity that I experienced to really take a good look at how I fit into the larger scheme of things and I think that that opportunity for connectedness is the strength of Inside-Out.
DK: Could you maybe give us a picture of what the first Inside-Out class looked like? Did you have any apprehensions about it? Were you nervous?
JS: My interaction with the folks from the outside, previous to Inside-Out, was limited to my occasional visits in the visiting room. So as it turns out, the class was scheduled to be in the visiting room in the evening and it was. The 12 inmates were settled down and we waited for this class from the local college to come in and it was very interesting, I remember sitting in my chair looking out the window seeing that their van had arrived and they were disembarking and they were walking towards the building and I thought “This is going to be very interesting,” because these are young people and I think I was wondering, How would I feel if I was one of those people? If I was one of those students walking in? What impressions did they have of prison? Were they fearful? Were they apprehensive? I certainly was in my element because the environment was one I was familiar with, but it was interesting to consider what they may have been feeling. And I would say the discomfort or the awkwardness lasted for about three minutes. It was magical in a way because we introduced ourselves and then just started talking to one another. Even before the professor gave us an outline of the course it was like breaking the ice, getting to know you and it was very disarming – wonderful. It was familiar and new at the same time.
DK: Can you say more about that – familiar and new. How were those two things held together in that experience?
JS: For anyone who goes to prison, however you identified yourself, however you oriented yourself in life at the door, when you walk in the door, when you walk behind a wall you are part of a larger population and you are just one of many. And I think over the years I lost a real part of myself, the unique part of Joe Schwartz, in an effort to acclimate to what my life was going to be for the next number of years. When the students walked in the room for some reason, something perked up. And I was able to engage with people who didn't have an expectation about whose expectation of me was that I was a prisoner and they were really uncertain of what I might bring to the experience. When I sensed that they were interested to know about my life experiences in general, that's when things changed for me. Because I had so much to offer, and with the exception of a handful of men who I knew in prison who I was close with over the years, I really didn’t have an opportunity to express myself very often. THIS was that opportunity. I could bring my life experiences to the table in a setting that had previously asked me to push it all aside for the sake of getting through the prison experience.
DK: As you journeyed together as inside and outside students through the semester, could you point to any moments where people maybe had an “Aha!” moment, or a moment of change or awakening either in yourself or others in the space?
JS: We had assignments to do every week and when we shared those assignments in class it was very interesting to find that a lot of our perspectives on life were, in many ways, not really different from one another despite the fact that they would go home every night with their families or go back to school. Our worldviews were really not that much different and that was the common ground that we were looking for – finding a way to relate to one another in a meaningful way that would allow us to learn. It was a wonderful experience. The thing that I would like people to know is that prison is about disconnecting. It’s about disconnecting from the outside world, it’s about facing whatever your term of incarceration will be. So much is sacrificed for that but is a necessary part of the process. Otherwise depression and anxiety exists about a life that one no longer has, and over which one has no control. Inside-Out was the reminder that I’m part of a bigger world, a wider world, and that I have a responsibility to myself and to the larger whole. Inside-Out was a way to awaken that realization.
DK: As you observed your peers in the prison experiencing this Inside-Out course, did you notice any changes or impact on them?
JS: With every session – first of all just learning one anothers names was a big deal. Them to know our names, us to know them. And it didn’t take a very long time to feel very comfortable with one another because we’re sharing a very personal part of ourselves and so rapport developed pretty quickly. I think the program was designed to allow for that so what was enlivening was to actually look forward to Joe, or Sam, or Mary, or Sue who were coming the next week to talk about, not only what our course material was about, but about conversations that we had had, dialogue that we had had previously or about what was actually going on in one another's personal lives. It really really, in the most important way, it opened up the world for me and I think for my colleagues, for my peers.
DK: As you spent time together in the class, there were a lot of opportunities to open up, and it sounds like there was a certain level of, I think, vulnerability, right? Did that feel, at any point, risky? Because when you had to go back to the cell block, you had to disconnect in order to survive, as you said. How did you balance all of this?
JS: I can’t say how it may have been in other inside-out programs, but I can tell you where I was, that it was the safest place. When you’re sharing a view of life, it’s a somewhat intimate experience. What I brought to the class every week, and what I took back with me, was a greater comfort in the life that I actually have. Because I realized that I’m not limited to my prison life any longer. For anyone with a lively intellect, this program really offers the opportunity for stimulation and for reflection, for discovery. The rapport with my fellow students and with the professor was so dynamic that it really moved me. When one course was over I was eager to take the next. I can tell you, because we were a class of 24, that the feelings that I had were shared by everyone: by students and inmates alike.
DK: So you are now outside of the prison. You were released how long ago?
JS: In three weeks I will have been released one year. So I should say that I received a 20-year sentence and at about 12 years, I was invited to apply for clemency as a part of President Obama’s clemency initiative, and I actually did apply and I was one of 34,000 people in a group of 1,700 who got some relief. This all happened at the time that I was engaged with inside-out, so my life sort of coalesced in a very interesting way. I had no idea what shape my life may take when I was released, but one thing that I decided to do was that in order to make the 14 years of the 20 to which I was sentenced meaningful, that I would do my best to give voice to this program. I would like to be an advocate because there a bunch of guys in prison who didn’t have the opportunity or the privilege that I’ve had and who are probably still suffering in a way that many prisoners suffer. Inside-Out is an opportunity to relieve that suffering so whatever I can do to promote this kind of a program – This program – I want to do.
DK: Joe what do you see as your greatest hope for the future either for yourself or for the community around you?
JS: I went into prison at 50 years old and came out at 65 – I’m 66 now. When my peers and colleagues are retiring, I’m re-entering the job market. I’m a pastry chef of 30 years by training and experience, and for me, I’m looking for, and have the opportunity right now, to practice my skills in the field in a way that’s very rewarding. When I was 25 growing my career, I was very ambitious and very eager to learn my craft and to find a place for myself in the culinary community. I’m at the backside of that now, and I want to offer my experience to others, so not only am I working but doing volunteer work with the Philabundance community kitchen which is a culinary program here in Philadelphia for others who are coming out of the system and perhaps who have never had the opportunity to develop any kind of job skills. So, I’m doing volunteer work there, working on the bakery curriculum, and doing bakery demos. As far as the larger community goes, I came away from this experience wanting to be an advocate. I’m not the kind of activist who can stand in a rally or maybe deliver a message to larger groups, but I feel that one-on-one or in small groups, I can be very effective. So, social justice reform, criminal justice reform are very important to me. When life doesn’t roll on endlessly, the time that we have becomes more valuable so I hope to use my skills and experience in a more meaningful way now by offering opportunities to people who themselves are either still in prison, through education, or coming out of prison through re-entry by being able to share my experience and share my resources and help to build networks and help to inform the public in general.
DK: Joe thank you so much for sharing. We truly hope the best for your future and we thank you for your commitment to justice moving forward.
JS: Thank you.
Tyrone Werts: You've been listening to the Inside-Out Podcast, a production of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. To find out more about the program or make a financial contribution please visit the website at insideoutcenter.org.
Podcast production assistance by Elijah Glovas-Kurtz, a student at Temple University.