After spending the last 20 years at the University of Oklahoma, Susan Sharp will retire this week. Sharp, a David Ross Boyd professor of sociology, has dedicated her career to studying women in prison. During her time at OU, she introduced Inside Out, a transformative exchange program that connects college students with prisoners.
Originally created in Philadelphia, Sharp was instrumental in bringing Inside Out to OU. The program is a means of bringing together campus-based college students with incarcerated individuals through a semester-long course held in a prison. It also has become an international network of trained faculty, students, alumni, think tanks, higher education, correctional administrators and other stakeholders actively engaged with and deeply committed to social justice issues. The course is not focused on inmates and their criminal records, but instead offers prisoners and students a way to improve society.
“The Inside-Out program provides a wonderful experience for everyone involved,” said Craig St. John, chair of OU’s Sociology Department in the OU College of Arts and Sciences. “The inmate students who take the course have something valuable to do that broadens their sense of the of the world. They get to interact with a group of outsiders, college students and a college professor, and they develop a positive sense of self through finding out they have the intelligence and ability to function in a college course. The college students who take the course gain a sense of what prison life is like and get to know the inmates as real people with many needs and desires similar to their own instead of just as statistics.”
Sharp taught her courses at the Mabel Basset Correctional Center, located in McLoud, Okla. Following Sharp’s retirement, John Carl, OU assistant sociology professor, will continue directing the program in the spring. In preparation for the transition, Carl recently traveled to West Virginia for training that took faculty members inside prisons.
“The fact that Susan got this started and we will continue it is a testament to her life’s work,” said Carl. “Susan brought this program to the state of Oklahoma and she made the flagship institution a leader in it. It is impossible for me to fill her shoes, but I hope to continue her work. She paved the way and continuing this program is a testament to Kelly Damphousse, dean of the OU College of Arts and Sciences, and the leadership of the university to put resources into this.”
Typically, the Inside Out program at OU is offered to 15 students and 15 prisoners per course. Carl will teach a course on Alcohol, Drugs and Society in spring of 2017.
“My own personal goal is bringing college students there who will be policy makers or who will influence policy in their lives,” said Carl. “Also, there is nothing about the program that says it has to be a sociology or criminology class. Philosophy and English professors were at the training. OU can continue Susan’s work by looking at what we can do for the community to foster a dialogue to prepare prisoners for the real world. This program can be widespread and that would be a great extension of what Susan started.”
Sharp’s research at OU focused on female crime and deviance, the incarceration of women, and the impact of corrections policies on families and offenders. Her recent research has focused on theoretical explanations of female criminal behaviors from a life course perspective, exploring how multiple marginalities may steer women into criminal or deviant behaviors. She has served on the executive board of the American Society of Criminology and was the founding editor of Feminist Criminology, the official journal of the Division on Women and Crime of the American Society of Criminology.
The state of Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and the highest rate of incarceration of women. Nearly 100 prisoners applied for the course at Mabel Basset. Mabel Basset is unusual for the Inside Out program because only seven percent of Inside-Out programs are taught at women’s prisons.
“Susan has had a remarkable career,” said St. John. “Her research on women inmates and their families had made valuable contributions to our understanding of the paths leading women to incarceration and the impact this has on their families, especially their children. But Susan has been much more than an academic researcher. Her work for the State of Oklahoma and her advocacy for groups that otherwise would have no voice has seriously impacted corrections policy in our state. Susan has been a true participant in what we refer to as public sociology. That is, Susan has applied her work as a researcher to important social issues with the goal of making life better for the dispossessed and forgotten. Susan has been a crusader for good causes and I deeply admire her for this.”