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