Students lead victim impact program for inmates

May 4, 2017
Students make tie blankets.
Students give tie blankets to officer
PDCI inmates make tie blankets

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Fifteen University of Wisconsin-Platteville criminal justice and forensic investigation students recently facilitated three sessions of victim impact programming for 60 inmates at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The goal of the program was to help inmates take accountability for the people and communities who have been affected by their crimes, understand the hurdles victims face following a crime, and participate in opportunities for repairing harm.

Students participating in the program were enrolled in the Victimology and Restorative Justice course, taught by Dr. Amy Nemmetz, assistant professor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville. Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior, and is accomplished through cooperative processes that include the victim, the offender, family members of the victim and the offender as well as members of the community.

“Although students participate in critical thinking exercises in the college classroom, when they lead victim impact programming activities at the correctional institution, they leave with a true understanding of the challenges inmates may have faced before engaging in their crimes, including child maltreatment, substance abuse and economic struggles,” said Nemmetz. “When students help inmates dissect how many victims are affected by crime, the students also grasp a better understanding of the depth of the trauma victims may experience. These experiences help students prepare for embarking on a position in a criminal justice or related entity.”

Lisa Pettera, program supervisor at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution, said the collaboration with UW-Platteville has been amazing. “Months later, inmates will recount something they took away from one of the sessions and have incorporated into their thinking,” said Pettera. “Many describe how beneficial the program has been, in helping them within their day-to-day routines or in their release planning. It’s not unusual to hear men who have completed the program talk about specific ways they intend to be a positive force in their community when they return home.”

Students who participated in the program include: Kristina Bordner, Bryce Davis, Billie Jo Finnegan, Allison Gundlach, Aaliya Hannah, Ashley Herro, Johanna Madland, Tony Radun, Shanice Rich, Julia Schmelzer, Bethany Schroeder, Max Snyder, Chloe Ware, Andrew Yamriska and Hannah Christian.

Prior to the sessions, students toured the inmate housing unit, visiting area, chapel, restrictive housing, recreation area, on-site health services and a large programming area at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution then attended a Choices panel, where inmates talked openly about their past, what led them to prison and their lives in prison.

Session One, April 7: Victims and Intimate Partner Violence
At the first session, students and inmates watched an inspirational video, “Pay It Forward,” then inmates discussed people who had positively affected their lives. Inmates also discussed the victims of their crimes and what they hoped someone had done for them and their families to make their situations better.

Following, students led an activity in which inmates tried to make a basket with a paper ball from a certain position in a certain location. The difficulty some of the inmates had in making a basket illustrated that some people have an easier time accomplishing a task because of where they are positioned at that moment, just as some people have an easier time accomplishing things in life because of their position – their family situation, economic status, privilege, etc.

Students also led discussions about how victims are treated by the criminal justice system, how socioeconomic status affect victims and how recovery depends on whether people blame them for the crime.

Inmates and students then read the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and discussed which victims’ rights would be most important to them if they were victims, which victims’ rights the criminal justice system needs to devote more attention to and which victims’ rights their victims may have needed the most following the crime, then made posters about the topics and shared them with the group.

Finally, inmates watched two videos about intimate partner violence and discussed the long-term psychological and emotional impact on the victims and how the crimes affected other members of the victims’ families and the community. Toward the end of the session, students and inmates discussed a scenario of intimate partner violence and how the concept of restorative justice could help bring about healing.

Session Two, April 11: Effects of Drugs and Reflection
At the second session, students and inmates made fleece tie blankets together, a project designed to help inmates give back to victims. While the inmates cut the fabric and tied the knots, they talked about the types of hardships victims at domestic abuse shelters experience, why children in foster care and juvenile homes may be victims of the system and what kinds of feelings these children may have. When the project was finished, the inmates voted to give the 30 blankets they had made to children who have been victimized.

Later in the day, students gave half of the blankets to Maxwell Erickson, an officer with Prairie du Chien Police Department, who will give them to children the department works with who have been victimized. Erickson earned a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice from UW-Platteville in 2006. Students gave the remaining blankets to Grant County Social Services in Lancaster, Wisconsin.

Following, students led a myth/fact activity that helped illustrate that drug-related crimes are not victimless crimes. Inmates then created posters and fliers that showed how drugs affect others. Finally, inmates completed a past/present/future activity in which they wrote down how they would describe themselves before they came to prison, the steps they were taking now to positively affect their future and what they hoped to accomplish after they are released.

“I like the past, present and future part of our program,” said Snyder, a junior criminal justice major from Janesville, Wisconsin. “The inmates look back and see where they were and feel proud of how far they have come. They have great plans for the future with their families, jobs they want to get, and continuing their education. When I graduate, I want to be a police officer. During my career, I understand that I will see people on their worst days. The inmates are just like anyone else and they have just made mistakes. They are afraid to talk to new people but once they do, they are very open. They have taught me that everyone has a story and it is important to understand that story and know why the person is making the choices they are making.”

Session Three, April 27: Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse
At the third session, students and inmates watched a video about Eric Smallridge, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for killing two 20-year-old women, Lisa Dickson and Meagan Napier. While in prison, Smallridge wrote letters of apology to the victims’ families and both families, in time, forgave him. Meagan Napier’s mother, Renee, was instrumental in getting Smallridge’s sentence reduced to 11 years and the two of them now travel to high schools, colleges, churches and military bases to tell their story and discuss drinking and driving.

Following the video, students and inmates discussed the power of restorative justice, forgiveness and healing; how difficult it must have been for the families to forgive the person who had killed their daughters; how they felt about Napier’s decisions; and how they would feel if they were in Napier’s situation.

Finally, the mother of a drunk driving victim, Mayda Crites, shared her son’s story as well as her own personal experience with the criminal justice system and how she has found healing through restorative justice initiatives. Inmates then shared their thoughts about Crites’s story, questions they would ask if they had an opportunity to talk with the offender, and what they thought should be done in the future to prevent situations like this from happening.

Ware, a senior criminal justice major with a corrections emphasis from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said that being able to apply the skills she has learned over the past four years is going to give her a head start in her future career.

“Through this experience working with inmates, I learned how to engage them in conversations, set boundaries and expectations, and assert myself, which is something that can be difficult for correctional officers who have never been inside a prison,” said Ware. “The hands-on learning made me more comfortable with the type of work that I hope to do in the future as a correctional officer. The feedback I received from the staff and the thank yous I received from the inmates for helping them learn things that they might not have learned otherwise reassured me that I will be good at my future job as a correctional officer.”

The victim impact programming had a positive effect on inmates as well.

“The restorative justice program was very educational and I hope that the program becomes available at other institutions that don’t currently offer it,” said one inmate. “I honestly believe that inmates who took it seriously and shared with others in their groups and listened to the guest speaker (victim’s mother) are going to think about what they’re doing and how many people are actually being affected (more than they did) before they took the class; they realize the range of people that they could affect.”

“I enjoyed knowing how I affect victims and seeing from a different view as if I was the victim,” said another inmate. “It (victim impact programming) shows me how to be a good citizen in society by helping others instead of helping myself. (As far as trying to repair harm), I would apologize to them (victims) and show them that I am a better person or I am trying to be a better person and show them what I have been doing so that they believe and know that I’m not like every other criminal and still continuing to do crimes. (Someday, I would like to) donate to a homeless shelter or start a foundation just for victims dealing with crimes.”

The hands-on, experiential learning experience at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution was made possible with the support of the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement, a UW-Platteville initiative and funding source for campus-wide coordination, integration and leadership of community-based scholarship of engagement projects and internships that involve students, faculty, staff and community partners.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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