Inside the Classroom
Prison visit provides real world experience for students
Last semester, Professor Nicole Myers took seven of her Criminology 343: Correctional Practice students to visit two prisons in Abbotsford: the Fraser Valley Institute for Women (FVI) and the Matsqui Institution for men. She’ll repeat the tour this semester with another 10 students.
Criminology 343 is a third year seminar class for 25 students. The class discusses contemporary issues in correctional practice in Canada, specifically focusing on the prison experience.
We interviewed Myers to learn the purpose of the field trip and how it impacted her students.
What was your main goal in bringing students to see a prison first hand?
I wanted students to have the opportunity to visit a correctional facility to dispel any myths that have been created or fostered by the media. Also, the
visit adds that real world experience to what we talk about in the classroom. If you are going to work in the criminal justice system or in corrections, I think you really need to get a sense of what it is you are going to go do and see what that looks like first hand.
How did the students react
to the experience?
The students certainly seemed very nervous, very uncomfortable. You could see it on their faces, and some of them said it. It is a very uncomfortable experience going in and seeing people who are serving time. Some of the people serving time are not happy that you are there for a tour; this definitely adds to the level of discomfort.
What did the students get
to see during the visit?
The visit generally takes a full day. We are walked right through the institution. We see most parts of the prison, with the exception of segregation (solitary confinement) cells. You see that prisoners go to work, go to school and also participate in religious, cultural and therapeutic programming. The correctional officer gives an overview of the institution. Students are provided an opportunity before and after the tour to ask questions.
What feedback did you receive from students about the experience?
The experience facilitated very interesting dialogue in the classroom. We often talk about prisoners in an abstract way in the classroom setting, so it was nice for the students to get the opportunity to follow up the tour with any questions for myself and to relay that experience to others in the class. I think they took a lot from the experience. The tour made the issues we were discussing very real and it served to humanize the prisoners by challenging ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Who should take this class?
I think anyone who is interested in taking a critical look at what we are doing in corrections. This course is not a how-to of correctional programming. This course is looking at challenging and controversial correctional practices. It’s an opportunity for students to explore these areas in a very critical way. We are not looking at how to administer programming, we are critically thinking about how correctional practices can be improved. Students taking this course need to want to actively engage with the material and participate in class discussions.
Note: To be eligible to attend the prison tour, students must be enrolled in Criminology 343 and apply for CPIC security clearance at the beginning of the term.
Visiting a women’s institution and a men’s institution all in one day provided me with a great opportunity to experience the vast differences between the two. It was interesting to see the different programs and activities available for the inmates. For example, the dog kennel program at Fraser Valley Institution and various workshops at Matsqui Institution. I had no idea these existed! Touring the various buildings and observing the layout of the institutions was very intriguing as it allowed me a greater picture of what these prisons were like from the inside.
Overall, it was a very valuable experience not only for my education, but also personally as any other member of society who typically has limited opportunities to see the realities of our criminal justice system.
The visit to the correctional facility really influenced me personally and my understanding of the prison system. I was just recently hired by Burnaby Youth Custody Services as a youth correctional officer. The field trip influenced much of my decision to apply for this position.
I found that no matter how detailed something is in a textbook, it does not compare to actually experiencing it. It is a very difficult task working with offenders, changing their mentality and helping to improve their overall well being. The one part of the field trip that really influenced me was when our tour guide said, ‘I feel I make a difference even if I only help 1 in every 100 inmates.’ Although this may sound like terrible odds, every difference matters.
As we toured the prisons, it became apparent that both had different purposes. The way the women's prison was set up seemed to be different to the way the men's prison was set up.
FVI seemed to be very conducive to treatment, psychological help, and most importantly, education, and the women were able to wander around freely, and have a good relationship with the officers.
Matsqui Institution had a more onerous atmosphere. We were shown a maximum unit, where the male offenders heckled us, and it was
hard not to stare back at them. The organization of this unit looked like the 'typical' prison that we see on TV shows. The officers appeared to monitor the male offenders (more than the females at FVI), and this confirmed the stereotype that male offenders are perceived to be more dangerous. I just thought that the male offenders looked like sad, aimless souls, knowing that they were going to be in there for a long time.