Criminology students meet with inmates

Andrew Donohue

A new University seminar gets criminology students out of the classroom and into a different kind of research lab — a prison cell.
As part of a graduate seminar in criminology, sociology professor David Ward sent his students to Oak Park Heights, the highest security prison in the state of Minnesota. This was not a punishment, but rather a learning experience devised to bring the students closer to the subject of study. A first of its kind in the state, the seminar was so successful that Ward said he plans to offer it again.
During fall quarter, six of Ward’s criminology graduate students met several times with three convicts to analyze criminology literature. The students and inmates used the books to spark discussion.
“It was an opportunity for students, whose field of profession was criminology, to test the latest theories with people whose life’s decisions were based on criminology,” Ward said.
This study was enhanced by the fact that these were not typical inmates, said Michelle Powell, a graduate student who participated in the study.
All three of the inmates were what Ward calls heavy-duty convicts. They all had done time in federal prisons and currently have long sentences. Their offenses include drug trafficking and armed robbery. One participant was a police officer involved with a kidnap and murder.
Although tattoos and poor English might come to mind as stereotypical images of inmates, all three convicts have at least a college degree. This was important to Ward, who wanted the inmates to be on the same level intellectually as the students.
The inmates were “on a serious and sustained level (academically),” Ward said.
No tension was present between the students and the inmates, who were placed in a room without University or prison staff members for their sessions. The room was always under security, so if anything went wrong help was not far away.
As the study progressed and participants became comfortable, humor and goodwill filled the room. The inmates were avid readers themselves and were not shy about participating, Ward said.
For the students, it was interesting to hear the inmates’ theories on criminology and to hear about their personal experiences, Powell said. This drew the students closer to the actual work than any textbook or video possibly could, he said.
Many of the graduate students currently work for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which claims jurisdiction over Oak Park Heights. This put the students in an interesting situation. The students and inmates who were only involved on a professional level were now involved on an academic level. This gave students a completely different perspective, Powell said.
“For me, it was a great learning experience,” said Ward. “The 35-mile drive was well worth it.”
As a substitute for the final exam, the students returned to Oak Park to give 30-minute presentations to the other inmates and students.
Surprised with the inmates’ enthusiasm, Ward has only one regret. He said the seminar would have been more successful had the inmates also presented.
Powell said she attributes the inmates’ involvement to their age. Because they are older than their counterparts, the inmates who participated are more mature. They are more focused and willing to work with students.
To delve deeper into the criminal mind, Powell said she believes the study “would be very interesting to do with `normal’ inmates.” Perhaps inmates without a high level of education would cast more light on the thinking of the typical criminal.
Depending on student interest, Ward said he would like to conduct this study every other year. Of course, that would also depend on the warden’s willingness. “This activity requires a very high degree of trust between the prison and the University of Minnesota,” he said.