New Course Takes Students to Maximum-Security Prison

New Course Max Security PrisionAs part of a collaboration between the Departments of Sociology and Communication, as well as the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the University will be offering an extension to its current, Investigating the School-to-Prison Pipeline course through an additional class that will allow students to regularly visit a maximum-security prison in Trenton starting in Fall 2017.

The program currently falls under the larger umbrella of the University’s Academic Exchange Program, and aims to help students learn more about mass incarceration through direct interaction with incarcerated people, according to Dr. Johanna Foster, Assistant Professor of Sociology. Foster hopes to get students thinking about several aspects of mass incarceration, including the political dynamic, gender inequalities, and institutionalized racism of the system.

“It’s a two course sequence, and in the first course, students on campus learn about the history and the current conditions of prisons, and get some practical preparation to go inside prisons,” said Foster. “Those students who complete that class now will be eligible to join the second class which will be at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.”

A new section of the first course will be offered during the summer semester to give opportunities to other students who wish to be part of the group of students that will visit inmates in the fall.

Dr. Eleanor Novek, a professor of communication, spoke about the importance of having the program as a two-part sequence. She said, “As long as it’s in your head it’s theoretical—you have one kind of understanding. When you see the kinds of facilities that prisons are, and when you meet people who are incarcerated, you get a very different view.”

Novek speaks from 15 years of extensive personal experience as a volunteer teacher at prisons, and is adamant that firsthand experience challenged one’s expectations and prejudices.

“The school-to-prison pipeline program has opened my eyes to the impact incarceration not only has on the inmates but correction officers and the families of those incarcerated as well,” said Alyssa Behr, a criminal justice major, who stressed the importance of applying this material to real life experiences.

“The United States is the world’s largest jailer,” said Foster. “A quarter of all the world’s prisoners are housed here [and] it’s an entirely racialized project so we have overwhelmingly people of color and people of low income who are incarcerated.”

Novek hopes the class raises awareness about the integration of freed prisoners back into society. She explained how an ex-inmate’s record can follow him or her around for years and impact opportunities for a lifetime. She said, “[Mass incarceration] is a major human rights issue. People are not receiving equal justice; it’s a civil rights issue when people have served the penalty that society has given them and [are still] not free of the collateral consequences.”

“A lot of people on all sides of the political spectrum recognize [mass incarceration] as a huge drain of resources. There are other ways of dealing with community safety… from policing all the way to prisons that could be done differently, more humanely, and cheaper,” Novek continued.

“It is important for people not to be afraid to interact with incarcerated individuals in order to remove the divide between the inside and outside… so more people can understand [and] contribute to restructuring the system,” said Elizabeth Carmines, a junior political science and sociology major.

“The biggest hurdle was just it takes a lot of time to get [a program like this] approved,” said Foster. She added that there was some significant legal red tape that had to be navigated through, including consistent communication from the University and the Department of Corrections in order for Monmouth students to be able to take part in these organized visits.

“What we would really like to see is Monmouth participating in ways other colleges and universities already have, and that is offering credit to students on the inside and supporting formerly incarcerated people as they try to come back to campus,” continued Foster. This entails bringing in extra funding and conversations with University administration about why incarcerated people deserve these opportunities.

Novek explained how students are the future of political and moral thought, and how programs like these can change their perceptions. “The main piece for me is the human contact. [Students] have absorbed so much about the ‘otherness,’ the ‘dangerousness’ and the ‘evilness’ of criminals and people who are locked up that when [students] encounter them, they see humanity,” she said.

The course codes for the Summer 2017 class with Foster are CO-398-B02, SO-398-B01, and CO 598-B01, Investigating the School to Prison Pipeline Part 1. The course codes for the Fall 2017 class with Novek are CO-398-04, SO-398-02, CO 598-01 and PS-598-01, Investigating the School to Prison Pipeline Part 2.

PHOTO COURTESY of Dr. Eleanor Novek