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Social Work students get up-close look at prison life


April 20, 2012

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KANSAS CITY, Mo - “Be sure to pull that gate closed behind you, until you hear it latch,” the prison official told the college student of the tall, chain-link fence with razor wire coiled around the top. When she did, and the loud clang rattled through the cool spring air, the group of 12 Avila University Social Work students couldn’t help but join in a collective cringe.

This was for real.

The contingent, members of professor Francis Origanti’s Human Behavior in the Social Environment class and juniors in the university’s social work program, visited the Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility the morning of April 18 with the purpose of gaining knowledge of the prison environment, a few of the details of prison life and, perhaps most important to their educational paths, the psyche of some of the prisoners currently detained at the facility.

“It’s exposure to a different field setting for practice,” Origanti, Ph.D., said. “This exposes students to a type of person they don’t get exposed to very often. It addresses human behavior and how that behavior manifests itself in a confined environment.”

Social Work ClassThe students got to see quite a lot during their two-hour stay at the facility, which contains three distinct cell blocks - one maximum security, one medium and one minimum. After moving through security much like an airport’s at the entrance, including handing over state-issued identification to be checked, the group walked past the medium-security building, the oldest on the property, built in 1927.

They passed by the recreation yard, complete with a basketball court and fenced-in area that looked like dog pens but was a recreational area for “segregated” inmates. They then stepped into the newer building which housed the maximum-security cell blocks. Inside were 118 inmates dressed in different colored tops and pants which resembled hospital scrubs. It was laundry and bedding exchange day so the area buzzed with activity, especially in the cell block commons areas, which contained small circular tables for eating and one small TV.

The students passed by a hair salon for the inmates, mental health facilities, family visiting areas, even a lab where dentures are made – to replace all the teeth lost from inmates’ use of methamphetamine.

But the most interesting part of the trip was saved for last. The students stepped into a small meeting room and sat down to listen to the stories of three inmates, of how they got to this place and their visions of a future spent in captivity. Tabitha was a college-educated teacher who got wrapped up in an abusive relationship and was sentenced to 25 years to life on a child sexual abuse charge. Bo and Crystal also were raised in broken homes and drug abuse led to lives of robbery and prostitution.

The students sat rapt in attention as the ladies told their sordid and cautionary stories, all of which had a central theme – they made poor choices.

“It was all very interesting,” said student Maria Bello. “I loved that we got to go when people were out and we got that interaction.”

Fellow student Quintin Headley, the lone male among the students, said, “It was hard for me to see women in prison, because I know a lot of them are mothers. But it was very informative. It cleared up a lot of stuff I didn’t know.”

This was Laura Guber’s second time to visit the Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility. She said she found this trip more educational, largely because of the personal interaction with the inmates.

“This time, the inmates were more open with their stories. Today was more scripted. But, last time, they weren’t prepared. We just kind of asked questions from inmates who were randomly selected, so maybe we got a little more raw information from them.

“It was interesting to see how they reacted to us in their space.”

For Origanti, it also was interesting to see how his students reacted to being in that environment.

“If any of these students ever want to work as a social worker in a prison system, is this something they think they can handle?” he asked. “Maybe trips like this help answer that.”



Avila University is a private, co-educational, values-based liberal arts institution founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offering undergraduate, graduate, and adult degree programs. Avila University is located at 119th and Wornall Rd in southwest suburban Kansas City, Mo.