Learning to Understand Diverse Populations, Wurzweiler Students Visit NJ Penitentiary

On July 9 a group of students from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work went to Northern State Prison in Newark, New Jersey—not because they committed any crime, but as part of their training to offer social services to diverse populations in need.

134963659“When I first began bringing students to Northern State Prison, it immediately became apparent that it was a powerful experience and more trips were added,” said Dr. Jill Becker-Feigeles, an adjunct assistant professor at Wurzweiler, who has accompanied students on more than 20 such trips since 2003. “The trip brings together so many facets of the students’ social work education: the ways incarceration impacts development at various stages of an individual’s life, issues with policy implications, diversity and ethics. Most importantly, the trip puts a human face on a population sorely in need of services and largely unrecognized, and has become the highlight of the students’ first year at Wurzeiler.”

At the prison—a maximum-security facility that houses an adult population of male offenders for mostly violent crimes—the group first heard from Wanda Carrero, the prison’s educational coordinator, who provided a brief orientation about what to expect.

“My overall goal leading these tours is to leave participants with a positive impression of Northern State Prison as a pro-active facility which utilizes professionally trained custody and civilian staff to ensure safety, care, discipline and treatment needed to prepare the inmates for reintegration into the community,” said Carrero.

Following the orientation, the students exchanged their personal IDs for visitor passes and proceeded through a metal detector.

The group stopped at different points throughout their tour as corrections officers and other administrative staff had to determine whether the grounds were clear for the tour to proceed, since inmates could be walking through on their way to and back from educational and social service programs provided for them. These pauses allowed students to observe the facility closely and get a sense of the very bare-bones environment, including the fenced-in yards where inmates get to spend an hour each day outdoors.

Students heard from one of the prison’s social workers who outlined the different social service groups that are available to the inmates, such as parenting groups and rage management, and spoke about the transformative effect the groups have on the inmates most committed to experiencing change.

Next, the students were led to the prison’s mental health facility where they heard from the staff psychiatrist and psychologist who discussed their protocol and the treatment the inmates receive under their care.

While the doctors spoke, small groups of six or seven students were given the opportunity to experience a couple of moments in one of the empty cells, with the door shut behind them. The tiny room housed a metal bunk bed, a toilet, and not much else, and many students said that was the first real sense they got from the tour of what prison is actually like.

“Just being in that cell for 30 seconds and realizing some of them are there for 30 years was a hard concept to wrap my head around,” said Alyssa Tanz.

But most students agreed that the conclusion of the tour, in which the students sat down for personal conversations with several inmates as part of a prisoner’s speakers forum, was the most enlightening. The inmates spoke honestly and openly about the crimes they committed that had sent them to prison and their experience spending decades behind bars. They encouraged the students to ask them anything and everything. Topics discussed included what the inmates missed most about the “outside” (most said their families); whether the inmates found prison to be more punitive or rehabilitative (answers varied), and which movies or shows came close to depicting an accurate version of prison life (one inmate said “Shawshank Redemption” came pretty close). Following these more personal conversations, the inmates fielded questions from the entire group.

“Does it make you feel uncomfortable when groups like ours come to tour the prison?” asked Leah Schwartz. One of the inmates, nearing his 30th year of incarceration, answered that while he knows some inmates dislike the tours, he enjoys being a part of this line of communication to those “on the outside” and likes to share what prison is really like on the inside in an effort to help others better understand the dynamics.

After retrieving their IDs and returning the guest passes, students left the facility looking contemplative and, undoubtedly, relieved by the fresh air that greeted them outside.

In a class following the trip, students dissected their experience with one another, discussing how engaging the inmates were and how they felt themselves relating to them. One student, however, struggled with that feeling. “If we were connected to the victims of the crimes the inmates committed, I think a lot of us might have felt differently toward them,” she said. “I kept trying to remember the victims, and I struggled with finding a balance between punishment and forgiveness.”

Another student, Ari Ackerman, said that he “found that much of the staff who spoke to us saw prison as a rehabilitative experience, but the inmates who spoke to us almost all said it was more punitive. I think the staff wants to believe that what they’re doing is productive, but the inmates felt there was more that could be done to help correct their behavior.”

“Students often come away from this experience much more open to working with this kind of population,” said Becker-Feigeles. “Even if they never work directly with incarcerated persons, they will inevitably come in contact with a client who has been incarcerated in the past or someone who has a family member who is incarcerated. Having had this experience enhances their ability to connect to that person.”