Demystifying prisons through the use of experiential learning.

Author:Smith, Hayden P.

In 2001, Robert Freeman wrote an interesting piece about ancient mapmakers who were responsible for providing direction to the populace even though they personally lacked the experience of travel. These map-makers frequently took liberties by inventing mythical beasts that resided in unchartered waters, often by simply inscribing "Here Be Monsters." Contemporary views of prisons can be compared to this categorization because they also typically rely on invented narratives that are not based in personal experiences. For the majority of citizens, prisons are an unknown and stereotyped aspect of society (Cecil and Leitner, 2009), yet paradoxically, many citizens have strong opinions about inmates, prison employees and correctional facilities. For example, Reed and Reed (1971) surveyed 204 schoolteachers, maintenance workers, and farmers and found consensus on predictions of bio-social and personality characteristics associated with offenders. Later, E. Madriz (1997) interviewed New York residents of varied socioeconomic backgrounds who also expressed consensus that offenders were male, black or Hispanic, poor, lazy, immigrants, dirty, immoral, irrational and insane. These stereotypes are universally negative and typically based on media representations rather than personal experience.

It is clear that images related to corrections are shaped by portrayals found in films (Cheatwood, 1998; O'Sullivan, 2001; Rafter, 2006; Wilson and O'Sullivan, 2004), television prison dramas (Jarvis, 2006; Rapping, 2003; Wilson and O'Sullivan, 2004) and, to a lesser extent, news- and reality-based crime programs (Cecil and Leitner, 2009). Typically these accounts of prisons and the inmates housed in them are limited in their representations. For example, Cecil and Leitner's (2009) study of MSNBC's "Lockup" found that this particular show highlights "some of the most extreme institutions and the most violent inmates." Likewise, R.M. Freeman (2000) found news stories involving corrections to be overwhelmingly negative. Media representations of prisons usually serve to reinforce negative perceptions of prisons. As R. Surette (2006) explains:

In sum, the news construction of corrections is scanty, and when covered, corrections is marketed in a manner that emphasizes predators and criminogenic institutions. The day-to-day administration of punishment and attempts to rehabilitate do not fit common media narratives. The prison sentence as a long tedious block of time where nothing changes is absolute anathema to the dramatic event that is typical of a "hard news" item. There are few dramatic rituals or events involved in prison life. and those that do occur are negative and involve death and violence.

Negative public opinions and perceptions about prisons are associated with the limited scope and/or inaccuracies presented by the media (Cecil and Leitner, 2009; Freeman, 2000; Surette. 2006). While such stereotyped and erroneous perceptions of prisons are evident in the media and in surveys of public opinion, this lack of knowledge is even more alarming when found among students of criminology. Williams and Robinson (2004) argue that when presented with alternative themes or perspectives evident in corrections, many criminology students regress to simple ideological assumptions. This constitutes a poor knowledge base for students, many of whom will engage in careers that address the needs of vulnerable populations. Several educational tools, including the use of internships and prison tours, can be used to address this gap in knowledge and understanding for students. Although internships allow broad and prolonged exposure to correctional settings and to those housed or working in the system, only a limited number of students choose to participate in corrections-based internships. The use of guided prison tours as an educational tool would expose a larger number of students to the corrections field where they can observe and experience first-hand the prison setting, albeit for a brief period. In this context, experiential learning refers to a broad set of "activities that engage the learner directly in the phenomena being studied" (Cantor. 1997).

Pedagogically, professors can link classroom materials to actual learning experiences and expectations. To date, there are several examples where pedagogy is placed within a socio-historical context that is relevant to criminology. For example, Bordt and Lawler (2005) used correctional tours in a private Midwest college whose students were described as overwhelmingly white and economically privileged. Here, classroom readings and discussions addressed theories of punishment and historical trends in penology, and identified the social context of prison in modern day society. The prison themes strongly related to issues of social inequality, race and gender, with classroom materials including select audiovisual presentations (e.g.. Quiet Rage, a documentary of the Stanford Prison experiment) and the perspectives of criminal justice agents (Bergner, 1998) and inmates (Owen, 1998). These classroom materials were introduced to students prior to visiting several prisons, and students were then required to compare theory to practice.

Another example is Smith. Meade and Koons-Witt's (2009) use of previsit and post-visit questionnaires to assess change in 69 criminology students who toured several prison facilities. Previsit questionnaires identified clear stereotypes of inmates and depressing expectations of the prison milieu, coupled with frequent references to media influences. Post-visit questionnaires revealed that almost 86 percent of students changed their views in some manner, with a significant portion of students identifying rehabilitation and incapacitation as key philosophies following a prison tour. Moreover, students developed more realistic perceptions of inmate descriptives (i.e.. race, inmate physiques and interpersonal behavior) and facility characteristics (i.e., hygiene levels, corrections professionals' demeanors and attitudes, and architectural/security forms). These examples illustrate the potential benefits of prison tours for students and suggest that demystification of stereotypes could also benefit correctional stakeholders.

Efficacy of the Prison Tour

A search of the existing literature on the utility of correctional tours reveals commonality in the following pedagogical themes. First, traditional classroom learning has long been restricted to visual and oral presentations of relevant issues. In its negative form, the instructor-centered classroom environment, "dominated by the traditional lecture and bombardment of students with endless definitions and factoids, is likely to neglect the need to have students react to the subject matter in ways that could facilitate higher learning" (Sims, 2006). By contrast, the correctional tour stimulates all of the learner's empirical senses.

Second, crime and punishment are often viewed as intangible concepts by students, whereas visits to prisons offer concrete examples within a real-world context. In the classroom, there is a scholarly presentation of materials by the professor in conjunction with challenging class readings that introduce students to the substantive topics. Students are then in a position to compare the viewpoints within the classroom setting to a practicing reality. Having an understanding of the issues that commonly impact prisons and their inmates empowers students to ask direct and pertinent questions.

Third, experiential learning experiences encourage students to become life-long learners rather than experts at regurgitating information. As B. Sims (2006) states, "all too often, educators think about assignments as ways to generate grades and neglect their true purpose: assessing learning." Prison tours allow students the opportunity to be active and responsible for their own cognitive development. The pedagogical endeavor becomes a dynamic interaction between students, instructors, practitioners and...

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