The unlikely pairing of the professor and the lifer yields results for Pittsburgh Police |

The unlikely pairing of the professor and the lifer yields results for Pittsburgh Police

Deb Erdley
Homewood native Robert Wideman, 68, who was released from prison in July 2019 after serving nearly 44 years for second-degree murder.
Robert Wideman during a Tribune-Review interview in Downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

No question, they made for an odd couple.

The college professor and the inmate serving life in prison for second-degree murder were indeed an unlikely pairing. It began in 2011 when Duquesne University professor Norman Conti met inmate Robert Wideman when he took a group of students into the now-shuttered fortress of a state prison known locally as Western Penitentiary — or simply Western Pen. They were at State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh for a class called Inside Out.

Course requirements called for students to meet with inmates and hold weekly one-on-one discussions to get a real-world perspective on America’s criminal justice system.

Wideman, 68, a Pittsburgh native who served nearly 44 years in prison before his recent pardon, was among the first inmates to step forward and encourage others to participate, Conti said. They formed the nucleus of the inside portion of Inside Out.

“If there were a couple thousand guys in there, these were the ones who wanted to make a difference. They were the guys who’d say, ‘I don’t care if I’m in prison or not, I want my life to matter even if I never get out of prison,’ ” Conti said.

Eventually, the program would be adopted by the Pittsburgh Police Academy, which continues to send recruits and seasoned officers through Police Training Inside Out.

“We started it in 2013, and we met for a few years trying to get the program to happen,” Conti said. “Most of the guys didn’t think it would happen. (Wideman) was the only one who thought it would happen. I can’t say enough about him.”

Different view

Sgt. Colleen Bristow, a recruit sergeant at the Pittsburgh Police Academy, attended one of the early Inside Out classes before it became a part of the academy curriculum.

“(Duquesne) sent an email out offering it,” Bristow said. “There weren’t a lot of people who wanted to take it. But I was a victim of a crime on the job a few years before, and I took it because I wanted to see how the guy who hurt me was living.”

She said it holds value for veteran officers and recruits.

Police learn some of the street terminology and come to see life through the eyes of individuals who have lived amid crime and poverty. Those on the inside see the challenges police face on the street.

“It is humanizing on both sides,” Bristow said. “The best thing about it is the one-on-one conversations, the fluid organic conversations they have with each other.”

The officers and recruits wear street clothes to the first few sessions and appear in uniform only at the final session.

Bristow said that allows inmates to see police as people rather than robots in uniforms.

“They do that to us, but we put a lot of stigma on them as well,” she said.

To date, about 100 seasoned Pittsburgh police officers and recruits have completed the five-week program, which moved to SCI Fayette, near Brownsville, after the state prison in Pittsburgh closed in 2017.

Conti and Bristow said other police agencies have inquired about the program, believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation.

Friendship from anger

Wideman, who wants to continue working with Conti’s think tank on restorative justice, said he was happy to get involved with Inside Out.

His life as an angry, rebellious young man who got involved in a robbery that culminated in the death of another young Pittsburgher at the hands of one of his associates is chronicled in the 1984 award-winning book “Brothers and Keepers” by his brother John Edgar Wideman.

The tall, thin man who moves slowly these days conceded he was angry for years after his second-degree murder conviction. Wideman said he decided he had to change, had to give something back after the murder of his son Omar in 1993.

Wideman earned an associate’s degree while in prison, taught inmate classes in algebra and trigonometry and mentored inmates through Narcotics Anonymous. He was ready for another challenge when the opportunity to interact with police grew out of Duquesne University’s foray into the prison.

“It started out as Norm’s (Conti) idea. All of us were a little apprehensive. We did it with just six lifers and six police officers. But we ended up friends,” he said.

The fear and stereotypes that separated the police from the policed seemed to dissipate.

“It’s something to look at in this time we’re living in — what with police shootings and things. If we don’t find a way to talk to one another and not just talk, but interact, nothing is going to change,” Wideman said.

In Pittsburgh, incremental change may be under way.

Something was evident in the exchanges at a Police Training Inside Out session shortly after a gunman’s bloody rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October that left 11 worshipers dead and five police officers wounded.

“We had gone in for four weeks leading up to Tree of Life,” Bristow said. “Afterward, a few of the inmates admitted to watching it on TV. They said, ‘We were watching it on TV, and we were worried about you guys getting hurt.’ That was very meaningful to me,” Bristow said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.