On the evening of Tuesday, April 19, a large group of students gathered in Philips Memorial Library to learn more about the prison system in the United States. Many students who were in attendance came from the fields of criminal justice or sociology, but there were also attendees from a wide variety of other majors. Three West Chester professors were the main speakers for the evening, and through their knowledge and experience, students were given the opportunity to explore the sometimes hidden world of life behind bars.This was the last LUVIM program of this semester, and it was chosen through a survey of over 200 WCU students. The name of the actual program was, “America?s Underground Prisons & Prisoners: The Cost To Humanity.” The three professors who were asked to participate were: Dr. Brian O?Neill of the Criminal Justice Department, Dr. Anthony Zumpetta of the Sociology Department, and Dr. Randolph McVey of the Criminal Justice Department. Each of these men has experience not only in the field of teaching but also within some area of the correctional system so they were very well informed on the topic of prison life.
A main issue that was discussed concerned whether prison conditions were too rough or too easy for inmates. Each speaker acknowledged that the hardest part of being in prison is not the physical aspect but the psychological. Inmates have no control over the most routine life choices, and the monotony of such scheduled living can take a toll on one?s emotional state. It was also acknowledged though that this kind of structure is probably necessary in order to ensure the safety of both the prisoners and the prison workers. There was also an extended conversation about the living conditions in the prison system, including the opportunities for recreation and luxuries.
Many people view things such as exercise equipment, movie rentals and televisions as items that should not be available to those who are behind bars. The professors made sure to stress that these small rewards provide incentives for good behavior and distractions that could reduce the amount of prison violence.
It was also mentioned that the prisoners are still forced to pay for these services from the money, which they earn through prison employment. Employment usually pays a very small hourly wage that averages about thirty-five cents an hour. It is also very easy for large companies such as MCI to take advantage of the prisoners? loneliness. Companies such as this will charge prisoners a maximum rate for services because these convicts have no other options from which to choose.
The health and medical treatment that is provided for prisoners is also lacking in quality. Often these people are regarded as lower than human, and the health care that is chosen depends more on price then on quality. Each of the professors made sure to focus on instances where adequate health care may have positively affected a prisoner?s chance of survival, but instead that person suffered because of their status as an inmate.
Other topics that were touched on included the overwhelming amount of minority inmates, the U.S. policy of providing few second chances for convicts, the lack of change that has occurred in the prison system over the last thirty years and the ethical argument of organ donation to those on death row. After each discussion, both students and other faculty members were encouraged to ask follow-up questions and provide any additional views on the topic. Professor Frederick Struckmeyer of the Philosophy Department expressed a strong opinion towards the lack of improvement in the prison system.
He said, “Why are we such a punishing society that is so willing to spend large amounts of money on prison facilities without doing anything to correct the underlying problems? I was happy that the speakers focused on some core issues such as this and acknowledged that there are definite flaws in the system. It will indeed take the efforts of grassroots campaigns and a restructuring of the drug laws in order for real change to occur within our prisons.” This event attracted a very attentive group of students who were given the rare opportunity to openly discuss a highly debated topic.
The continuous participation by audience members really proved that students were thinking about and questioning the US policies concerning prison life and the treatment of prisoners. Jacob Maxwell, a senior in communications studies major, said, “I learned a lot about the system that I didn?t know. I hadsome ideas about prison life that I found out were not true. The biggest issue for me was the ethical question of organ donation to those on death row. It?s a moral argument that everyone has a different opinion about. Overall, the program was really informative and interesting.”
The professors encouraged anyone interested in learning more about this topic to spend some time volunteering at a prison. Each speaker has spent a good amount of time in these facilities, and all agreed that volunteering is an ideal way of sorting myths from facts. The Chester County Prison was suggested as a convenient place to volunteer and learn about prison life. Each professor also stressed that the real key to improvement within both the prison system and within the lives of inmates is greater focus on education.