Katie Dwyer ’10, MA ’12 (pictured), was just a freshman when she walked into Oregon State Penitentiary for the first time, her stomach clenched with nerves and anxiety. As one of the youngest in a mixed class of UO students and prison inmates, Dwyer desperately wanted to be liked by her “inside” classmates and feared saying anything that might offend them. Moving through the stark halls toward the prison’s education wing, she didn’t know whether to make or avoid eye contact with the passing inmates. She felt intimidated by the physical space, confined by the barred gates slamming shut behind her.
While the prison environment seemed foreign, Dwyer’s experience in the classroom proved surprisingly familiar. When she and an inside classmate paired up to discuss passages from Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, her anxiety and self-consciousness evaporated in the conversation.
“We were just trying to read this book and talk about it,” says Dwyer, who as an undergraduate double-majored in comparative literature and sociology, with a minor in Spanish. “In a way, it’s the most normal thing. It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life as a student.”
Founded at Temple University in 1997, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program brings university students together with prison inmates for discussion-based courses in subjects ranging from criminology to literature (see sidebar for details). While some 15,000 “inside” and “outside” students nationally have completed an Inside-Out course, few have made more of the experience than Dwyer. In 2011, while a graduate student at the UO, she earned a George J. Mitchell Scholarship to study international human rights law in Northern Ireland, making her the first Duck to win the prestigious national award (think Rhodes Scholarship, but for the Emerald Isle).
Her collegiate dedication to championing education in prisons was, she says, an unexpected step following a middle-class upbringing in suburban Colorado. During a childhood she describes as quintessentially American, Dwyer’s views on criminal justice were as traditional as the community around her. “If you’d asked me at 16 who was in prison, I would have said the ‘bad people,'” she says. “I had a very simplistic understanding of what prisons were for, what they meant, and who went there.”
Her experience seeing the world from inside a prison not only transformed Dwyer’s understanding of the criminal justice system, but also of herself—and of her need to take action.
During an icebreaker activity with one of her inside classmates, Dwyer remembers struggling to answer what should have been a softball question: What are you most proud of? “I realized I had no answer for that as a 19-year-old,” she says. “I had excelled at everything that was expected of me, but I had never done anything particularly out of the ordinary.”
Ask a 25-year-old Dwyer the same question today and her biggest challenge might be choosing just one answer. En route to winning the Mitchell Scholarship, she became the first undergraduate student in the country to complete Inside-Out’s instructor training program and the first student member of its national steering committee.
On campus, Dwyer’s senior honors thesis about the pedagogy of Inside-Out earned the Robert D. Clark Honors College’s President’s Award—its highest distinction. She also spearheaded an effort that resulted in the publication Turned Inside-Out, a creative arts journal that highlights poetry, essays, illustrations, and photos from the first three years of classes at the penitentiary.
During three years as a national-level intern with Inside-Out, she worked to perpetuate and extend the program by involving others. In 2010, she helped found the country’s first “outside” alumni group, creating an opportunity for UO students to continue the Inside-Out experience in a new setting. The group kicked off by starting a book club with juvenile offenders enrolled in the drug and alcohol treatment program at Eugene’s John Serbu Youth Campus. For 90 minutes every Friday, an unlikely assemblage of university students and troubled teens sat together in a circle of 15 chairs, eagerly discussing the latest chapter of their Spider-Man graphic novel.
The world of literature found a welcome home at Serbu, and successive book clubs invited the likes of Boo Radley and comic-strip duo Calvin and Hobbes to enter the discussion. The club’s focus has since shifted toward discussion topics and collaborative projects, including a recent effort to develop policy recommendations for some of society’s toughest and most pressing issues, from gang violence to drug use. The project gave the youth a voice, but also an audience: Eugene mayor Kitty Piercy attended an end-of-term presentation to hear the group’s proposals.
Since the book club’s first meeting in 2010, close to 50 UO students have followed in Dwyer’s footsteps, including seven who have been trained as Inside-Out instructors. Among them are senior Mika Weinstein, a 2013 finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship, and Jordan Wilkie ’13, alumni programming director for Inside-Out’s national organization, as well as graduates who now work at Teach for America and the Prison Law Office, a prisoners’ rights law firm in Berkeley, California.
UO associate professor of geography Shaul Cohen, who mentored Dwyer during the Mitchell Scholarship process, says opening doors for others is at the heart of Dwyer’s leadership style.
“Katie commits herself, but she also creates opportunities for others,” he says. “She encourages them to act on their values.”
As the alumni group flourishes stateside, Dwyer is setting her sights on a new target in Northern Ireland: kickstarting the country’s first Inside-Out program. Her early efforts have led to conversations with university and prison officials in Belfast, as well as a chance to present her ideas to members of Northern Ireland’s Parliament. Encouraged by the positive response, Dwyer is confident Inside-Out will have a place in the country’s future—and hers, too.
“University life has been the most important thing that’s happened to me,” she says. “I plan to always be a part of something like Inside-Out.”
—Ben DeJarnette ’13. This story is reprinted with permission of Oregon Quarterly, where the article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue.