Lecturer Danielle Murdoch


Prison tours increase student empathy towards prisoners and staff

September 26, 2018

By Christine Palka

Danielle Murdoch, lecturer in the School of Criminology, found support for the positive impact of prison tours on her undergraduate students with a study that collected feedback on the value and barriers to this optional field trip.

Murdoch’s findings revealed that students benefited from the tours in three main ways: an increased understanding of course materials, broader insight into potential career options, such as the role of correctional officers and treatment personnel, and – most importantly – a stronger connection with the people they study.

“The experience was eye-opening for students, many of whom discussed how their participation challenged their preconceived notions of who prisoners and staff are, ultimately expanding their personal notions of humanity to encompass those who reside and work within institutions [prisons],” says Murdoch.

The prison tours provided students with the unique opportunity to speak directly with correctional staff, and in one institution, with prisoners. Students who had the opportunity to speak directly with prisoners expressed that this served to decrease the social distance between themselves as “noncriminal university students” and prisoners.

Students noted that they gained a better understanding of the impact of imprisonment on both the prisoners and the prisoners’ families, especially the challenges in maintaining strong family relationships.

“A main goal of these prison tours is to help students see prisoners as people rather than statistics. Interacting within correctional facilities brings what we study in the classroom to life. For example, it reveals the complexities for those residing in prisons that we don’t automatically consider, such as how the realities of imprisonment can challenge prisoners’ efforts at rehabilitation,” says Murdoch.  

Students also came to better understand the challenges faced by correctional staff. One student explained that engaging in conversation with correctional staff improved their understanding of the dangerous circumstances of the work.

This increased understanding is significant because many of these students will go on to affect the people working and residing in prisons. Be it through a career in corrections, a role in policy or advocacy work.

“Many students said that they gained career insight from this experience. Students described the tour as incredibly beneficial to providing them with information about their suitability for working in corrections. Several students also said that the experience strengthened their resolve that ‘rights’ were important to consider in the administration of correctional policies,” says Murdoch.

Murdoch’s study was not without critique.

Students experienced barriers to attending the prison tours (e.g., scheduling and transportation challenges) and made recommendations for improvement. The three main recommendations students made were to improve transportation, schedule more tours and on multiple days of the week, and to provide an optional debrief session immediately following the tour to help students process a potentially emotionally challenging experience.

Murdoch is working towards implementing these suggestions for future prison tours.

The study, “Understanding the Barriers to and Educational Value of Student Participation in Prison Tours” was completed by Danielle Murdoch, lecturer in the School of Criminology, with the assistance of Sarah-May Strange, Criminology MA student. The project was funded by a Teaching and Learning Development Grant from SFU’s Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning it the Disciplines. The full report can be accessed at https://www.sfu.ca/istld/tldg/grants/ current-projects/fass/G0208.html.