PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Twenty-eight criminal justice and forensic investigation students from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville recently facilitated two sessions of victim impact programming for more than 45 inmates at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in Prairie du Chien, Wis. The students are enrolled in the Victimology and Restorative Justice Special Topics course, taught by Dr. Amy Nemmetz, assistant professor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville. A third session of programming will be held in mid-December.
Restorative justice – a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior – 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. Through restorative justice programs, the voices of victims can be heard and offenders take responsibility for their actions while taking steps to repair the harm they caused.
In early October, in preparation for the sessions, students toured Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution then attended a “Choices” panel, where they heard inmates talk openly about what led them to prison, answer personal questions about their past and talk candidly about life in prison.
“During the tour, students saw the institution’s daily operations, which gave them a realistic picture of the rules and structure,” said Nemmetz. “It also allowed them to gain a deeper sense of respect for the staff. The correctional officers were extremely helpful and professional with every inmate, regardless of the offense that landed the person in prison. The ‘Choices’ panel helped give the students an appreciation of the reality of criminal offending.”
Session One, Nov. 12:
At the first session on Nov. 12, students and faculty members gave inmates an overview of restorative justice. Following, the inmates watched two videos about intimate partner violence and domestic violence and then the students guided discussions about the psychological and emotional impact this type of violence has on victims and how the effects of crime ripple throughout a community for a long time, affecting many people, including primary and secondary victims.
During the discussions, students and inmates passed around a laminated autumn leaf as a “talking piece” and discussed how people, like leaves, can change – that at times, people may not be proud of who they are, but they have the ability to change in positive, meaningful ways.
To conclude the session, inmates watched a video about alcohol and other drugs then discussed the ripple effect of victimization, the effects of alcohol and other drugs on their lives and how to help others realize the effects of alcohol and drugs on their actions.
Session 2, Nov. 16
At the second session on Nov. 16, inmates split into two large groups. Each group completed a set of activities, then the groups switched.
In one group, students used small balls of play dough to illustrate how victims are forever affected by a crime, even though some may seem to recover more quickly than others. Inmates then took a true/false quiz about crime definitions and statistics. Following, students and inmates watched a Peter Woolf video about the effects of property crime, then the students led small group discussions about the ripple effect of victimization and how victims and offenders can come together to discuss a crime and how it has impacted the primary and secondary victims, family members and community.
After the discussions, the inmates wrote sample apology letters to the secondary victims of their crimes, though the letters were not mailed. The session ended with a discussion about how some victims may be treated differently within the criminal justice system, how socioeconomic status or financial status may affect victims and the time it takes victims to move forward following a crime.
“I am so grateful for this opportunity. How often do students studying criminal justice in an undergraduate program get to facilitate victim impact activities with inmates in a correctional institution? ... The students who successfully completed the course last year still talk about the life changing experience at the PDCI."
–Dr. Amy Nemmetz
In the second group, inmates and students made fleece tie blankets together. While they made the blankets, the students encouraged inmates to talk about the types of hardships victims at domestic abuse shelters experience, why children in foster care can be considered victims and why children in juvenile group homes can be considered victims of the system. When the project was finished, the inmates voted to give the 34 blankets they had made to three victim groups: children at risk or in foster care, victims of intimate partner violence and their children and juveniles residing in a group home setting.
Session 3, to be held Dec. 16
At the third session on Dec. 16, students and inmates will listen to a victim share about losing her son to a drunk driver, including the many ways she has been victimized following his death, including testifying, the lack of restitution and the pain and emptiness she feels without him. Following, students and inmates will break into small groups and the students will lead exercises that encourage inmates to think about how their crimes have impacted others.
“This collaboration encourages experiential learning at its best,” said Lisa Pettera, program supervisor at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution. “Students take what they’re learning in the classroom and put it into practice; the discussion groups provide inmates with a voice and a focus on considering other perspectives. It’s a unique opportunity for growth. I saw the signs of that growth in conversation with inmates after last year’s program – months later several inmates stated it was the most worthwhile program they had ever participated in. Word seems to be getting around and inmates are already asking to participate in the next program.”
“I am so grateful for this opportunity,” said Nemmetz. “How often do students studying criminal justice in an undergraduate program get to facilitate victim impact activities with inmates in a correctional institution? It’s amazing to see the offenders openly share with the students and equally gratifying to see the students challenge the inmates to think outside of the box when discussing topics such as the long term effects of crimes on victims. The students who successfully completed the course last year still talk about the life changing experience at PDCI.”
“It was interesting to see the humanistic side of offenders,” said Sean Hart, a senior graduating in criminal justice from DePere, Wis. “It was nice to hear what they thought about victims and the impacts their crimes have had on them.”
"I do not think the average person would want to go into a prison and engage in programs with inmates, that is why restorative justice takes a courageous person,” said Blake Stewart, senior criminal justice major from Waukesha, Wis. “Victims and communities can easily turn a cold shoulder to criminals but it takes courage to help them out. I certainly felt that when I and a partner were leading a discussion with a group of inmates. Hearing what they had to say truly opened my eyes. The inmates shared their hardships and struggles they went through and explained how they were imprisoned, and also how our programs helped them out.”
“Being able to go to Prairie du Chien to speak with inmates about victimology and restorative justice has had a positive impact on the their lives and the students,” said Tabatha Justice, a senior criminal justice major from Dixon, Ill. “They were all so grateful that we took the time to have conversations, watch videos and make blankets with them. They are all capable to make a change if they want to, and it was evident that most of them did.”
The program at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution was made possible with the support of the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement, 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.
As UW-Platteville pursues its vision of being recognized as the leading student-focused university for its success in achieving excellence, creating opportunities and empowering each individual, it is guided by four strategic planning priorities. The work with the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution aligns with three of the priorities, including providing an outstanding education, fostering a community of achievement and respect and enriching the tri-states.
Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, firstname.lastname@example.org