Social Justice class gains insight into incarceration
Ravin Bhatia, Staff Writer|February 16, 2023

Students in Social Justice Leadership took a field trip to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution, a medium security prison alongside Project Youth, a program run by MCI-Norfolk.

From HBO’s “Oz” to Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black ” to Fox’s “Prison Break,” seemingly, cinematic depictions of prison culture are more omnipresent than ever, feeding viewers images of the “typical” inmate: dispassionate, belligerent and remorseless. Yet, several students have sought to redress the narrative, hoping to understand inmates beyond these supposedly hostile facades.

Students from the C and G-block sections of the Social Justice Leadership class visited the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk (MCI-Norfolk), a medium security prison, on Thursday, Jan. 19 and Friday, Jan. 20, respectively. The trip, which takes place annually, was organized in accordance with Project Youth, a program run by MCI-Norfolk that allows inmates to share their experiences in prison with Massachusetts students.

History teacher Kate Leslie, who teaches Social Justice Leadership, said a strength of Project Youth’s is its ability to humanize inmates rather than exploit their stories to inhibit others from committing similar crimes.

“What makes Project Youth special is that it is not a ‘scared straight’ program in which the goal is to freak kids out and ensure that they never do drugs or drink and drive,” Leslie said. “[The program] is about helping students understand the humanity of incarcerated people, their decisions and the underlying factors, whether they be poverty or drug addiction or a history of sexual assault, that contributed to them breaking the law.”

Leslie said many of the stories told by the inmates correspond to the history and concepts explored in the Social Justice Leadership class.

“I teach my students about mass-incarceration and the ways in which the prison population has ballooned since the 1980s, especially due to the “Tough on Crime” movement and the policing of drug use. All of that tends to come up in the inmates’ stories,” Leslie said. “When they discuss why they are in prison, some of them talk about drug addiction, some talk about dealing [drugs] and others talk about receiving sentences that they felt were longer than they deserved.”

Following their visit to the prison, students were taken to the Brookline Teen Center, where they formed groups and reflected on the stories they heard. Senior Alex Levy said one story in particular felt powerfully resonant. It was told by an inmate named Ian, who recounted a night during which he operated a vehicle while heavily under the influence and killed a man.

“Ian grew up middle class and spent his summers vacationing in Cape Cod, like many students in Brookline,” Levy said. “He revealed his alcoholic tendencies but explained that he never thought of himself as an ‘alcoholic,’ as he drank beers every day, not hard liquor. He said something that especially stood out to me: ‘I thought of myself as a good drunk driver.’ Although this is counterintuitive to me, I hear many of my peers saying things like this quite frequently.”

Junior Malcolm Urena said the trip changed his perspective concerning inmates and their decisions.

“When I learned about the trip, I thought that the people in the prisons were there because they deserved it,” Urena said. “But after hearing their stories, it was hard to say that these people deserved to be in prison. They seemed to be normal people who had made a mistake that ruined their lives.”

Levy said the inmates she met were dissimilar from the stereotypical traits assigned to them in popular media.

“Hollywood tends to depict inmates as tattooed people in orange jumpsuits and shackles. It also portrays incarcerated people as cold and thick-skinned. These men, however, showed a great amount of remorse and were very vulnerable while telling their story,” Levy said. “One man even started tearing up as he recalled seeing his niece, whose life he hasn’t been able to be a part of while in prison.”

Leslie said hearing inmates’ stories highlighted the often overlooked structural flaws of the country’s criminal justice system.

“I’ve seen, in the past, that students have a sense that this country is failing to create a [criminal justice] system that rehabilitates. Sometimes, we say that the prison system is meant not only to punish people, but also to help them reform their lives and learn from their mistakes,” Leslie said. “However, when students hear these inmates talk about what prison is like, they don’t hear about that rehabilitative aspect. Instead, they might hear about how inmates cannot get time with a social worker or that they have not been able to address an underlying addiction.”

Junior Eli Traub said the trip’s immersive nature gave him knowledge and opportunities that he would not have otherwise achieved.

“I think this trip is so important because of the experience-based learning. I learned more in this trip than I did over my class’s entire prison unit, not from a lack of information during the unit, but from the value of experiencing things for myself,” Traub said. “No fact or statistic about the prison system can truly give you a grasp of what it’s actually like, and by listening to men who have spent years there, I was able to learn firsthand about the injustices and systemic issues in the prison system. Only through knowing this through experience will anyone be able to make meaningful change.”



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