The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Prison Tours: Tips and tricks for taking your students to prison and not leaving them there (even if you want to).
Table of Contents:
Part I: An Introduction to Prison Trips
Anyone interested in corrections, or even criminal justice, is aware of the issues concerning mass incarceration, institutionalization, the prison-industrial complex and all the arguments and concerns that surround these items. Therefore, waxing philosophical about theories of corrections or providing overwhelming statistics about incarceration would be redundant as you probably know them already. Similarly, if you are interested in education and pedagogy, you are also aware of the benefits of experiential learning and hands-on experiences, making discussion of those items redundant as well.
So instead, I am here to tell you something you may not already know: the many “dos” and “don’ts” of taking a class or two to prison or jail and some advice that may prove useful should you try to go. If you're worried about the experience of herding cats—students—and are not sure if the agony of spending an entire day with them is worth it, I'm here to tell you that it is. Here are some of the anonymous comments from my end-of-semester evaluations to prove it:
Corrections Fall 2019:
- "The most valuable aspect of this course I think was being able to go to the men's and woman's prison. That was an amazing opportunity that our class gets to experience, and I really think that it helped with our learning."
- "The prison trip was insanely educational. I loved every second of it and I've found myself telling all of my friends about how much I learned in this class."
Women and Crime Spring 2019:
- "No other CJ classes really discussed women and the hardships that they face in the CJ system. Also, the out-of-class experience of actually going to a women's prison was incredible to say, and it was the only class that actually had an out of class experience in general."
- "Everything about this class was valuable in my learning experience, but the most valuable part of the course was going to the women's prison in Concord and applying everything we talked about in class to real women in the prison."
Part II: How to Plan a Prison Trip
I have listed some items below (and shared my firsthand experiences) that you may want to consider when planning and scheduling your trip.
- What classes and/or students do you want to take?
In the past, I took freshman. But as it turns out, first semester freshmen were not ready for the requirements and maturity necessary for visiting a prison. Since several major freshmen mishaps (see below), I have decided that taking upper-level courses with a corrections focus is more beneficial.
- Students would try to submit their information for the background check late (whelp, now you can’t go)
- They missed the trip because they overslept (now I have to tell the prison we are short the number of people discussed and did their background check for no reason)
- They were not following the dress code (that I emailed out on three separate occasions and discussed in-class for each session two weeks leading up to the trip.)
- Which prison/jail will you visit?
Typically, a facility that is closer to your university is going to be better. There are a lot of reasons to choose an institution that is close such as fostering a good working relationship, possible job opportunities and internships for students, and ease of access. However, you may also want to consider what the facility allows or has to offer.
- What days and times you want to go?
I typically request two days in a row, I do this to remain flexible for students’ schedules. Some of my students have a heavy MWF schedule and would prefer a TR tour or vice versa. Therefore, a Monday and Tuesday tour would be easier to help accommodate my students’ needs. Though, I have found—for whatever reason—that one day tends to be more popular than the other so I have a first-come, first-serve policy. And by that, I mean, if you submit the background check information first for the requested day then you have a spot.
- How many people are allowed on a tour?
Given room size limits and safety concerns, there is typically a cap on the number of people allowed on tours; however, this may not always be the case. This is something you need to consider as well because if you want to take your whole class of 25, you may not be able to, that is another reason that considering two days of tours is best.
- How will you get there?
When I first did tours I considered getting the school vans and making sure everyone could get there. I started the process only to have my students grumble that they would rather drive themselves, by the time I had planned the trip only two students would be taking a van down with me. It was a waste of time and energy. If your university allows cars, learn the policy for school trips and when students are allowed to drive themselves. I have found this saves frustration and energy in the planning process. I have also told students if they do not have rides that I can arrange car-pools with people who have open seats. I have never had an issue with a student being unable to attend.
- What is the dress code?
Students hate dress codes, but they exist. These codes can typically be found online. However, if you cannot find it, I would recommend asking the facility. Here is an example from New Hampshire prisons.
In the past, I have had some issues with dress code policies; specifically, some of my students do not have the right clothing to attend the prison with. This may sound silly to some, but I work with many first-generation college students who are relying heavily on loans to go to school and affording new clothes for a tour of a prison was just not in the cards for them. One student commented that they did not have a sweater or sweatshirt without a hood and could not afford a new one—this makes a prison tour in a New England winter challenging. Another student contacted me privately letting me know some of her more professional, older clothes didn’t fit and she was relying mostly on leggings these days—which did not fit the dress code. Please remember to be sensitive to these issues. Typically prisons and jails will work with you and your students, but even I was unaware of some of the issues my students would face concerning something as simple as a dress code policy.
- How far in advance does the prison need the background check information and what information is required?
All federal facilities have a specific form that students must fill out and sign, while state and local facilities require different information. This information can normally be emailed anywhere from two weeks to ten days in advance. I am telling you this because it gives you an idea of the amount of pre-planning you are going to need to carry out. You need to give students anywhere from two weeks to a week to get the forms or information into you (they may need to check schedules or get off work) and then another week or two for the prison to run the information.
- Finally, does the prison allow students the opportunity to meet and talk with inmates?
This is something you can ask, and that the institution may be willing to accommodate. I have personally been very lucky. The New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women (the only women’s prison in the state of NH) allows inmates to speak with students. I will discuss this aspect of the prison tours more as I have found this part of the experience to be the most beneficial for my students.
Part III: History & Highlights
As I said at the beginning, I am sure all (three) of you reading this are aware of the benefits of experiential learning. However, I still want to highlight some of the amazing things students have been able to experience with these tours. I do think though, a tiny bit of background on my tours and why I chose them is warranted first.
I am very lucky in that I teach, live, and work in a small state. New Hampshire has three state prisons (two men’s and one women’s) and one federal facility. The men’s and women’s prisons in Concord are literally right next to one another; interestingly, the other men’s prison and federal facility happen to be only a few miles away from each other in the north country. The Concord men’s and women’s prisons can be viewed from each other’s parking lots (this becomes important later). One of the courses I teach is “Women and Crime.” Because of my interest in justice-involved women, I was able to develop a working relationship with the warden of the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women (NHCFW), Joanne Fortier. Warden Fortier is a tough, fair, and amazing woman. Personally, I have an immense amount of respect for her and the work she has accomplished at NHCFW. In fact, the only reason I got to know the warden was because of her willingness to come to speak with my classes. On the off chance she could, I had offered to have her skype with one of my classes, but then she said she was willing to come in-person. At this point, I was like “so, uh, you want to come to ALL of my classes?” She said “yes!” Since then, we have developed a great working relationship that has led to several amazing opportunities for my students and her institution.
NHCFW is brand new. People from all over the country have come to tour it, see its newest innovations, and learn about how it functions for the women. In comparison, the men’s prison is… old.[i] I kid you not when I say the outer walls are from the 1800s. I bring this up for several reasons. First, my most recent tour strategy for my “Corrections” course and my “Women and Crime” course is to take a tour of the women’s prison in the morning and a tour of the men’s prison in the afternoon. I think that the contrast between the facilities in age, population, access, and services helps have students understand the diversity and range of our correctional system. Furthermore, it allows students to learn about the way the two different populations are served.
Normally touring two different facilities may be a logistical nightmare, (getting background checks for both and then having a date and time that both facilities can and will host you) I was lucky enough to have Warden Fortier help in the planning these tours. She worked with the men’s prison to find dates and times that worked for me and the two facilities across a set of dates that I provided. The Warden also conducts all her tours and she allows tours to ask for a meeting with inmates.
Here is where it gets interesting. Warden Fortier allows students to meet with pre-selected inmates for about 45 minutes. She brings in two or three inmates, has them tell about their background and crime, and then allows students to ask anything they want. The warden explains the inmates have the right not to answer, but that all questions can be asked. My students have met with attempted murders, people found guilty of “death resulting” (a new one here in NH), and even Nicole Kasinskas (now 32 years old). The thing that seems to resonate with my students most about all of this is how “normal” these women are. Some of the inmates are well-spoken and articulate, some are repentant, and some are blunt. However, all of them introduce the human element of prisons that seems to be missing from many tours, classes, and documentaries.
Overall, meeting with inmates, the comparison between the institutions, and experiential learning are the biggest takeaways for many of my students each semester. Sometimes I find the details, pre-planning, planning, emailing, calling, reminders, and busy-work that goes into all this exhausting. But once it is all over with the gratitude and experience from my students really does make it all worthwhile. In sum, herd those cats and herd them proudly, they will appreciate it.[ii]
A special note of thanks for/to NH DOC for all of the opportunities they have provided me and my students with.
Kathryn Elvey is the co-author of Society, Ethics, and the Law: A Reader publishing on February 14, 2020. This first edition is an engaging, thoughtful, and academic text designed to help students make connections to ethical issues using real-world examples and thought-provoking discussion questions.
Comprised of 57 original articles, topics range from traditional (police, courts, and corrections), to popular culture (rap, social media, and technology), to timely (immigration, gun control, and mental health).
[i] One more note here: I have also taught a “History of Punishment” course. The tour at NH men’s facility was led by Major Fouts, a man with an insane amount of institutional knowledge, as such, he gave us a “historical tour.” Given the age of the prison and the information that we were there for historical knowledge, the Major showed us that the ground where the gallows was, remains under a trap door in the commissary. This area is where the COs run information and have a refrigerator next to the trap door. Taped to the refrigerator are the names, dates, and crimes of all the people hanged at those gallows.
[ii] And hey, if they don’t appreciate it, at least in New Hampshire you can leave with your souvenir license plate candy dish.