Just inside the entrance to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, 24 undergraduates and two University of Pennsylvania professors form a circle.
“Step into the middle if you never think about prison,” prompts the guide, Matt Murphy. About one-third of participants approach the center.
“Now step into the middle if you think about prison sometimes.” Another third move.
Before the group sets off to explore one of the most infamous prisons in the United States, Murphy plants one more seed: Contemplate why you answered as you did, he suggests, and then think about the fact that 70 percent of people who visit Eastern State say they have no connection at all to the criminal-justice system.
Students pair off naturally, breaking into quiet conversation as they begin to move through the facility. At the back of the pack is Ouss, along with Coren Apicella, an assistant professor of psychology, and Heather Calvert, executive director of mindCORE, a year-old initiative of the School of Arts and Sciences aimed at bringing together Penn scientists who research human behavior, intelligence, and the mind.
The prison excursion is part of a two-week summer program funded by mindCORE and overseen by Apicella and psychology professor John Trueswell. Faculty like Ouss from across Penn—from psychology, criminology, linguistics, and biology in Arts and Sciences, as well as Penn Medicine, the Annenberg School for Communication, Wharton, and Penn Engineering—lead workshops on social and behavioral sciences, plus language science and technology. The 24 undergraduate participants come from a mix of colleges and universities across the country.
“The students are pretty amazing. They all have a real interest in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive science,” says Trueswell, who will take over as program director next summer. “We try to make sure some come from schools where they might not have the opportunity to interact at a research level with faculty. And we also like to offer opportunities to underrepresented minorities and those who are the first in their family to go to college, if we can.”
This summer’s cohort was whittled down from an applicant pool of 120, and selected based on their interests, grade-point averages, letters of recommendation from professors, and other factors. The program aim is to give college students who may not go to research institutions a chance to work with and ask questions of scientists doing real work on the mind and the brain. It’s a different and intriguing kind of interaction for Penn participants, too.
“Faculty have always been really excited to be part of this,” Apicella says. “The two weeks last year stood out as some of the best of the year for me. The students are really smart, they’re engaged, and they’re asking great questions. There’s just a lot of intellectual energy.”
This is the second year of the summer workshop in its current iteration. Something similar has been around since 1999, originally backed by a 10-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Centers grant, then through a combination of support from the University and an NSF grant called an Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship.
The workshop aligns with the mission of mindCORE, particularly the outreach component, Calvert says. “We focus on what’s happening at Penn in mind and brain, researchers studying it from different angles, from psychology or from biology, philosophy, or neuroscience,” she explains. “Our name is an acronym, partly. It’s ‘mind’ and then the Center for Outreach, Research, and Education.”
Ouss, who studies recidivism and the effect of peers on inmates in prison, sees her role in the workshop—part of the week focused on behavioral health—as initiating students on research methods. Before the Eastern State visit, she gives a 45-minute talk about crime, punishment, what works, and what doesn’t. Eastern State was once upheld as a pinnacle of how to run a prison, with copycats of both its physical design and its philosophy of keeping inmates alone for 23 hours of every day. Today, however, solitary confinement is more frequently used as punishment, well known to lead to psychological problems like anxiety and paranoia.
“One of the big tools we have to reduce crime is incarceration, and the birthplace of the modern prison is Philadelphia,” Ouss says. “Eastern State was built based on ‘theories’ of what would help rehabilitate offenders: being isolated, having time to reflect on their offenses. But back then people weren’t testing their social policies, and being isolated can come with a whole host of problems. Now, we’re moving toward trying to figure out what works in our criminal-justice system.”
At Eastern State, standing next to what was once the baseball field, the students learn about a prisoner who lost his mental capacity and killed a guard. They learn about the facility’s overcrowding. Near the exit, the guide describes the only person to ever escape and not be recaptured. The experience as a whole gives the students a look at something once deemed “right” that eventually proved disastrous. It also links back to the talk Ouss gave before the field trip and to the broader idea that interdisciplinary connections between the mind and the brain, behavior and language exist everywhere.
“Penn has a pretty amazing community of cognitive neuroscientist researchers, and one aspect that’s unique about Penn is how collaborative the environment is,” Trueswell says. “People from various departments are always interacting. One of the goals of this program is to make sure that undergraduates from other universities have an opportunity to see and hear about that kind of research.”
Coren Apicella is an assistant professor in the department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences. John Trueswell is a professor in the department of Psychology. Aurelie Ouss is an assistant professor in the department of criminology in the School of Arts and Sciences.