Students Take a Hard Look at Life Behind Bars

They learn about prison rights - and wrongs - in Jan Term class

America's prison system is a lightning rod for criticism, with politicians, researchers, nonprofit organizations and many other groups debating overpopulation, funding and security. But often overlooked are the issues of rehabilitation, parole, re-entry, and social justice within the prison system.

Professor Ron Ahnen of the Politics Department asked his students to tackle these complicated issues in the Jan Term course, "Ending Sentences: Life Behind and Beyond Bars."

When Ahnen was 18, he participated in a jail ministry program with the Catholic Franciscan Brothers. The experience had a profound impact. Years later, when he decided to teach a social justice course at Saint Mary's, he jumped at the opportunity to explore the American prison system.

Inside the Prison Walls

To get a better idea of what "life on the inside" is like, students visited the California State Prison-Solano, in Vacaville, and met with seven inmates who described the harsh realities of prison life and their struggles with rehabilitation. The class also visited the Martinez Youth Detention facility.

The visit to the prison in Vacaville had a profound impact on Melissa Stroud. "It was incredible to hear their opinions about prison life. I was able to hear about a subculture I would never have been able to access." Lindsay Inman agreed: "It was scary and eye-opening. There are so many things that go on that most people never think about."

Understanding life behind bars was only part of the course that also focused on the issue of rehabilitation for the hundreds of thousands of inmates who leave prison and go back to society.

Putting a Face on Criminals

Ahnen challenged his students to redefine their understanding of what an inmate is. "The concept of ‘criminal' has a face," he told the students. "Most people in jail have drug issues, mental disabilities or both." He also asked the students to consider the bigger picture. "The population of incarcerated individuals is five times what it used to be 30 years ago." Ahnen noted. "Why is this? How has it occurred? And what can we do about it?"

Students explored these questions and others with the help of in-depth research, seminar dialogues and guest speakers, including an ex-felon who got an MFA from Saint Mary's after serving his time. But, in the end, the students were always asked to form their own opinions. Stroud found the learning process inspiring. "I learned to be accepting of views contradictory to my own and embrace a more sympathetic view toward inmates," she said.

To learn about the prison issue on the street level, students met with and volunteered for grassroots prison rights organizations in San Francisco and Oakland, an experience that opened their eyes to the wide-ranging network of advocacy groups working on behalf of California's prison population.

"I didn't even know about prison abolitionists," said Sean Chacón, referring to groups that are campaigning to eliminate incarceration and find new solutions to crime and punishment. "I may not agree with them, but it's good to know that people are working to create a drastically different system that might be helpful."

Behind the Prison Population Boom

The course also examined incarceration from a broader perspective, asking students to discuss how some factors in our society – the Supreme Court, the "Three Strikes" law, prison guard unions, the state legislature, socioeconomic status and institutionalized racism – contribute to the treatment of incarcerated prisoners.

"If you're black and from Oakland, you're more likely to go to prison than graduate from college," Ahnen noted. "No one is born a criminal, but then how is this happening? What are we doing as a society to stop it?"

In the final week of the course, groups of students gave thoughtful and passionate presentations on topics ranging from "Women in Prison" to "Criminalization of Immigrants and Non-Citizens."

An Inside Look at Prison Gangs

One group put the spotlight on prison gangs, explaining the beliefs of such notorious groups as the Mexican Mafia, Black Guerrilla Family, Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood. Then one of the Saint Mary's students revealed that his cousin and other members of his extended family had been gang members, and some had ended up in prison. "Gang life was all they ever knew," he said. He credited his own escape from the lure of gang life to his parents and "a lot of emotional support."

By the end of the month, the students had immersed themselves in the culture of prison life in America, and many were changed by the experience. Chacón revamped his view of what prison really means. "I realized the way prison is portrayed in popular culture – and how it really is – are two very different things," he said. "TV and the media really distort it."

Alix Syragakis '11