Sociologist honored for going inside the walls to bring college to maximum-security inmates

Michelle Inderbitzen

Michelle Inderbitzen and her sociology students are working within state prisons to help inmates improve their lives, help their families. (photo: OSU Marketing)

Being named volunteer of the year for her work in prisons is like coming full circle for Michelle Inderbitzin, an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State.

Inderbitzin, given the volunteer honor recently by the Oregon Criminal Justice Association, began her career in an undergraduate class on deviant behavior. Now her pioneering work is taking her into the Oregon State Penitentiary where she and 15 students and 15 inmates discuss criminal justice issues for 11 weeks each term.

She was the first on the West Coast to teach the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program class in a maximum-security men’s prison. Her efforts, since duplicated by the University of Oregon, earned her the Ruby Isom Volunteer of the Year Award, said Brian Belleque, superintendent of the Salem penitentiary.

“Her work gives inmates skills that will improve their chances for successful reentry into society once they’re released,” said Belleque, who nominated Inderbitzin for the award.

“The inmates are wonderful listeners,” said Inderbitzin. “Some enroll to get experiences they never had before they were incarcerated. Some want to see if they can compete with young people on the outside. Others just want to break up the monotony of their week.”

“Either way,” she said, “they get a lot from the program, and so do our students.”

Inderbitzin is expanding her work this year to include a small class at the all-female Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility near Albany. OSU students and the girls inside will learn college-level material on issues of crime and gender.

At her students’ suggestion, Inderbitzin will buy a video camera that can record incarcerated fathers reading to their kids on the outside.

Working with the Lifer’s Club at the penitentiary, the literacy program will give inmates the chance to read the same books as their children. Money for that project came from the L.L Stewart Faculty Grant Foundation.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids and their dads to be encouraged to read,” Inderbitzin said. “But is also will give them another chance to connect and they can talk about the book they both read and what they thought of it on the phone or in letters.”

The American Sociological Association Teaching Enhancement Fund will help her buy supplies and build a deeper connection between OSU and Oak Creek.

In the spring, Inderbitzin will teach another Inside-Out course at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, a medium security prison.

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