On a misty Friday afternoon, students in Robert Bingham’s J331 Corrections course gather outside the Indiana Women’s Prison. They’ve traded their normal classroom for a unique behind-the-scenes look at the prison, its programs, and a rare opportunity to talk to inmates.
“These lessons can’t be taught through a book or a lecture,” Bingham says. “Students have to experience this first-hand.”
They walk through a high-security metal door into the visitation room. Michelle Waire, a criminal justice major, and Matthew Behrmann, a public safety management major, aren’t sure what to expect. They both hope to walk away with better insight into the criminal justice system.
The group is soon greeted by their guide for the day, Courtney*. She’s a SPEA Criminal Justice alumna herself and the current head of the Wee Ones Nursery Program at IWP.
CHANGING LIVES ON BOTH ENDS OF THE LEASH
Courtney leads the group outside to the first building they’ll see. This facility houses the Indiana Canine Assistance Network – or ICAN – program. Inmates here and at other prisons train future service dogs. Hilary, a handler for five years, and Paula, the head of the ICAN program at IWP, meet with students to explain the program.
At Hilary’s side is Hope, a yellow Labrador training to be a diabetic signaling dog. Paula is accompanied by Dudley, a black lab named after fallen Indiana State Police Trooper Lt. Gary Dudley.
Students ask the women about the training process. Paula explains each woman spends 3,600 hours learning to train the dogs. The investment is worth it, she says, as she talks about the incredible impact the dogs and the ICAN program have on clients, dogs and trainers. When Paula is eventually released, she’ll pursue a career as a veterinarian technician.
“This program changes lives at both ends of the leash,” she says. “We are grateful to be in this program. I don’t take this for granted.”
Courtney escorts students across campus to the P.L.U.S. program, short for Purposeful Living Unit Serves. The program focuses on teaching tolerance, honesty, respect, responsibility, integrity, and compassion. The participants engage in community service projects, teaching the women to shift their focus outward. Yet they start by working on themselves through mentoring partnerships with inmates who have graduated from the program. They work to better themselves.
One inmate tells students the program “changes your way of thinking and your character so you go back out different than when you came in.”
WEE ONES NURSERY PROGRAM
Change is part of the process here. For some inmates, the most important change happened when they became mothers after entering the prison.
Courtney leads students into the building that houses her unit, the Wee Ones Nursery Program. Students light up when they see the babies. The newest was born just a few weeks ago.
Mothers get private cells, with their own bed, a crib, baby-friendly décor and a dresser for baby’s clothes. Clothing, food, diapers, baby wipes and other supplies are kept on-site. The women can get new baby clothes every two weeks and fill up on essentials once a week.
Typically, an incarcerated new mother has just 24 to 48 hours with her baby before the two are separated. This program gives mom and baby up to two years together. The students’ smiles disappear when the reality of the situation sinks in. These children are with their mothers now, but separation is inevitable.
Waire, a mother herself, is most moved by this part of the tour. She remembers the critical bonding that happens during the first two years of a child’s life.
“This program gives those moms something to strive for,” Waire says. “They know what they need to do when they get out of prison and have a reason to stay on the right path.”
THE “REAL” PRISON
Leaving behind the smiles and coos of infants, students soon head to a much harsher reality: the main prison facility.
Courtney warns they won’t stay long. This facility is louder. The mood is no-nonsense. The officers on duty keep a close eye on everyone. A quick walk around the circular desk in the center, a look down the cell corridors, a brief explanation of the set-up and students are escorted back outside.
As they leave, many students say they wish they could’ve spent more time in that facility to observe the inmates. But their next stop will get them even closer.
UP-CLOSE WITH OFFENDERS
Courtney leads the group into the chapel to meet five women serving time at IWP.
This is the centerpiece of Bingham’s tour. “This unique opportunity is virtually unheard of in corrections,” he says. “Through the panel, students can see and feel the inmates’ anger, regret, and hopelessness firsthand. But they also witness the women’s resolve to mentally and emotionally survive their sentences.”
The women all pointed to a desire to improve, and talk about how they’ve changed. “I just want to be better than I was yesterday,” Kristen says. “My past keeps me going forward to a better future.”
Of all the women, Marie seems the most at peace. She is notably older than the other panelists, having been behind bars for 23 years. She says she’s a changed woman now and wants to stay that way.
“I know how I used to be,” she says. “I’m glad that I came to prison. I wasn’t arrested; I was rescued. If it wasn’t for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here. This was my Damascus Road.”
Marie is scheduled for release in 2020. She’s asked about what concerns she has about returning to society. She worries whether she’ll be treated fairly. Looking at her and hearing her gentle nature, students have a hard time imagining what she could have done to end up here.
“It’s hard to believe any of these women committed acts to land them in prison,” Behrmann says.
The students listen intently to each woman’s story, taking notes throughout the discussion. The students and inmates discuss mass incarceration, sentencing timelines, free speech and what the goal of the correctional system should be.
“Instead of punishing and forgetting about those who commit crimes, we should focus on correcting mistakes that have been made while helping them return as productive members of society,” Behrmann notes.
REFORM THROUGH EDUCATION
The last stop on the students’ tour is the Education Center. The former high school now houses innovative programs to teach female inmates new skills designed to set them on a better path.
Among other courses, there are substance abuse programs, parenting classes, and a unique class designed to teach women how to code. The hope is that this skill set will prepare them up for higher-paying and sustainable careers.
In the last room students visit, offenders create products to be used outside the prison walls. They sew mosquito nets for people in developing countries to reduce the risk of malaria. Others sew era-based costumes for Conner Prairie. Still others create washable sanitary garments for young girls in developing countries to ensure they aren’t forced to miss or drop-out of school.
“I didn’t think there would be many opportunities for residents to seek treatment or rehabilitation,” says Behrmann, the public safety management major. “What we’ve seen is very different from my expectations.”
“THIS EXPERIENCE IS ABOUT MORE THAN A GRADE”
IWP’s programs are designed to help the offenders evolve into better, more confident and community-minded women.
Bingham hopes the tour also changes his students.
“Through this process, students learn the most valuable lesson of all: inmates are people like you and me,” he says. “Unlike you and me, however, they made horrific decisions that severely hurt others. As much as anything, it is faulty decision-making that separates offenders from the general citizenry.”
Throughout the day, many students feverishly took notes. Their next assignment accounts for 20 percent of their grade.
“The report students write allows them to process the totality of this experience in a structured format,” Bingham explains. “This experience is about more than a grade; it changes career paths.”
That hope for change was echoed by the inmates themselves.
“I’m hoping this talk helps you understand this side of criminal justice,” Deborah told students. “I hope you have more compassion for the people who are behind bars.”
The good news for the inmates, and our communities, is that the message of compassion got through to students.
“Although the inmates made mistakes in life and are paying for them, we still need to treat them like people,” Waire notes. “Respect goes a long way.”
*Names of all Indiana Department of Corrections’ participants have been altered for privacy purposes