I Came To St. Lawrence To Go To Prison
St. Lawrence offers students the opportunity to take classes on “the inside." Each semester, professors from departments such as English, chemistry, the First-Year Program and history offer a learning experience like no other. In my first semester on campus, my First-Year Program class was inside the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility called “Unlocking the Heart". Since then, I have taken three other classes on the inside at several correctional facilities in the North Country. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. At St. Lawrence, a classroom doesn’t have to be on campus.
Taking classes within the high-security barriers of a prison creates a whole new learning environment. Classes are held in the educational wings within a facility, but the classrooms are not like the high-tech rooms on campus. Most are basic, with a desk for each student and a chalkboard. However, in an environment like this you don’t need fancy equipment for learning; all you need are your classmates.
2. The students in these classes can teach us valuable life lessons.
“Please remember to always forgive. If people in my own life hadn’t forgiven me, I wouldn’t have a loving family on the other side even after all of my mistakes.” Upon reading a personal essay I wrote for our nonfiction writing class at a maximum-security facility in Malone, a classmate from the inside—who is imprisoned for life—turned to me and said these words. This quote has found a place in my heart and continues to teach me lessons every day.
3. The van rides to and from the facility are almost as fun as the actual class.
Since the facilities are often located outside of Canton, the van rides can be upwards of an hour each way. During these trips, we have the opportunity to reflect upon and discuss our experiences in the jails and prisons. Although half of the class isn’t there, processing these unique experiences with the St. Lawrence students in our classes has allowed me to create lasting bonds with my peers.
4. Being in jail together makes for strong relationships with your professors.
They may even become your advisor, or take your class out for pizza! Yes, after the final nonfiction course in Malone, Professor Bob Cowser took us all out for pizza. An outgoing, compassionate professor, Bob went above and beyond, always finding ways to make students feel comfortable about our personal memoir writing. I also got to know sociology professor Steve Barnard through the sociology course “Incarceration in the Digital Age” that I took with him at St. Lawrence County Correctional. He appreciated our shared interest in prison studies and he became my academic advisor.
5. My St. Lawrence prison experience led to a life-changing internship.
By the spring of my first year, I was deeply interested in the correctional system. I wanted an internship for the summer and with the experience and knowledge from our classes on the inside, I landed a volunteer position, and then became an intern at a reentry program in New York City. “Getting Out and Staying Out” is a nonprofit that works with young men during and after their time in the correctional system. My experience working with team of social workers at GOSO, and the days that I spent on Riker’s Island working with young men on the inside—helped cement my future goals.
6. Through St. Lawrence, you can go to prison in other countries, too!
Denmark has a vastly different correctional system than we do in the United States. Upon learning I could study alternative, rehabilitative prisons in the DIS Copenhagen program, offered through St. Lawrence, it became my first choice for studying abroad. My application was accepted, and here I am, excitedly awaiting for my flight to Copenhagen for the spring semester! I’m looking forward to experiencing a new place, while taking courses that allow me to follow my passion.
7. Never underestimate the power of human relationships or off-campus programs.
The experiences I’ve had with men and women on the inside have changed the way I see the world. Each person I’ve taken a class with, or worked with on reentry, has taught me so much about life. At St. Lawrence, I’ve been able to do more than talk about correctional problems, separated from real-world experiences. I’ve met the people that our policies affect the most. These connections would not be possible without the immersive classes I’ve taken at St. Lawrence.
So, on that note, I’d like to say, thanks, St. Lawrence, for sending me to jail!