Students conduct victim impact programming

November 30, 2017
Students with tie blankets
Members of correctional institution

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – “Don’t judge an inmate by his jumpsuit. People can change, and if you give them the resources they need, they will try all they can to reform and change other people’s lives as well.”

These are the words of Clay Spooner, a sophomore criminal justice major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, who, along with 17 of his criminal justice and forensic investigation classmates, recently helped facilitate three sessions of victim impact programming for 50 inmates at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The goal of the program, now in its fourth year, is to help inmates take accountability for the people and communities who have been affected by their crimes, understand the hurdles victims face following a crime, and participate in opportunities for repairing harm.

Students participating in the program are enrolled in the Victimology and Restorative Justice course, taught by Dr. Amy Nemmetz, assistant professor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville. Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior, and is accomplished through cooperative processes that include the victim, the offender, family members of the victim and the offender as well as members of the community.

Prior to the sessions, students toured the inmate housing unit, visiting area, chapel, restrictive housing, recreation area, on-site health services and a large programming area at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution then attended a Choices panel, where inmates talked openly about their past, what led them to prison and their lives in prison.

Session One, Oct. 17: Impact of Alcohol
At the first session, students and inmates watched a video about a man who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for killing two 20-year-old women. While in prison, the man wrote letters of apology to the victims’ families and in time, both families forgave him. One of the women’s mother was instrumental in getting his sentence reduced to concurrent 11 year sentences and the two of them now travel to tell their story and discuss drinking and driving.

Following the video, students and inmates discussed the power of restorative justice, forgiveness and healing. Afterward, Mayda Crites, the mother of a drunk driving victim, shared her son’s story as well as her own personal experience with the criminal justice system and how she has found healing through restorative justice initiatives.

One of the inmates said that for him, the most significant part of the victim impact programming was hearing Crites share her story. “As a person who has put a mother/family through similar suffering, I am motivated to do everything in my power to make amends,” he said. “Even if not to my victim’s family, then to others affected by harm. I’ve learned not to be defined by my past actions/choices, rather to allow my present to prepare my future endeavors.”

Session Two, Nov. 2: Victims and Intimate Partner Violence
At the second session, students watched a video about a woman who had been severely injured by two offenders committing a violent crime. The woman, despite protests from her children, ultimately forgave both offenders and, for more than a decade, visited with one of the men annually at the prison where he was serving his sentence.

Following the video, students led small group discussions about the three principles of restorative justice: accountability – taking responsibility for causing harm; restoration – trying to repair the harm caused by the crime; and engagement – inviting everyone who has been impacted by the crime to provide thoughts about the harm caused. Inmates then wrote down their thoughts about whether they had taken accountability for the crimes they committed and tried to repair the harm they had caused.

Students also led small group discussions about intimate partner violence and domestic violence. Inmates, many of whom witnessed intimate partner violence and domestic violence in their homes as children, shared their thoughts on why victims may stay in the home.

Session Three, Nov. 14: Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, Victims, and Paying It Forward
At the final session, students and inmates watched an inspirational video, “Pay It Forward,” then participated in small group activities that emphasized the importance of showing kindness to others. Inmates discussed people who had had a positive impact on their lives as they were growing up and shared times in their lives when someone had done or said something kind to them. Students and inmates then discussed positive steps people can take every day to make someone’s day better. Inmates named the crimes they had committed, thought about the primary and secondary victims of their crimes and shared what they hoped someone did for the victims to make their situations better.

Students also led small group discussion about the difficulties that victims face after a crime has been committed against them.

As a way to help inmates give back to victims, students and inmates made fleece tie blankets together. While the inmates cut the fabric and tied the knots, they talked about the types of hardships victims at domestic abuse shelters experience, why children in foster care and juvenile homes may be victims of the system and what kinds of feelings these children may have. When the project was finished, the inmates voted to give the 30 blankets they had made to Family Advocates, a domestic and intimate partner violence shelter, as well as victims in the community via the police and maltreated children via human services.

“This experience changed me,” said Spooner, an Albany, Wisconsin native. “It opened my eyes and gave me some insight into life and how one little mistake can tear people and their families apart,” said Spooner. “I also learned that some people genuinely want to change and be a positive impact to friends and family. I really think that we, as a society, need to give people who are incarcerated more chances to prove themselves and give them a second chance – after all, they are still humans.”

Spooner said the experience at the prison helped prepare him for his future career in corrections, either as a correctional officer or a probation officer. “The experience allowed me to expand my knowledge of the Department of Corrections and made me realize how much knowledge I can learn from many different people,” said Spooner. “It also helped me realize that people who are in prison are still people and to not judge them based on what we hear in the media.”

“Every semester, I am impressed with the offenders’ ability to truly analyze the impact of their crimes on their direct victims, secondary victims and their community,” said Nemmetz. “I continue to be impressed by the students who walk into the institution with hesitation and leave feeling proud and accomplished by the hard work they put into facilitating the discussion circles and activities.”

“The collaboration with UW-Platteville has become one of the most sought-after programs we offer to inmates – it’s to the point that inmates write year-round, asking to participate, though it’s only offered twice a year,” said Lisa Pettera, program supervisor at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution. “They hear about it from men who have completed the program. They seem to understand that their thinking is going to be challenged, but they hope to come away with something that will help them in the future. Inmates really respect the students and appreciate that they are willing to spend this time with them.”

Students who participated in the program included Spooner, Octavia Bogan, Alex Breuer, Riley Gallagher, Cheyenne Gilbert, Monika Glodowski, Kyle Gregory, Leah Hoeksema, Amber Hoffman, Madeline Kingsley, Cole McGraw, Alexis Ostrum, Renee Peters, Mitchell Pfohl, Courtney Pryce, Izzy Stanosek-Rockwood, Cassandra Story and Nicole Willenbring.

The hands-on, experiential learning experience at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution was made possible with the support of the university’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, a UW-Platteville initiative and funding source for campus-wide coordination, integration and leadership of community-based scholarship of engagement projects and internships that involve students, faculty, staff and community partners.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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