Criminal justice and business students at Pitt-Bradford are combining their talents to help prepare inmates of the Federal Correctional Institution -- McKean for release.
For six weeks, students from the Criminal Justice Club and Students in Free Enterprise have traveled weekly to the prison, which is about 15 miles south of Bradford. There they work with about 30 inmates who are within two years of being released.
The program has been well-received by the inmates, said Gary “Rusty” Ransom, vocational training coordinator and offender employment specialist at the prison.
“I hear nothing but good things about the Pitt-Bradford students,” he said. “I look forward to a continued relationship with them.”
In fact, Ransom has been waiting for something like this to come along. He and two inmate tutors, with the help of SUNY Fredonia psychology professor Dr. Dani McKinney, had drawn up curricula for various topics in life skills – searching for a job, banking, maintaining good health and nutrition, etc.
Then last year, Diana Maguire, associate project director for Pitt-Bradford’s Entrepreneurship Program and SIFE adviser, contacted Ransom about helping conduct mock interviews with inmates during a job fair to help them with their job-search skills.
“The SIFE team is always looking for projects where we can help people,” Maguire said, “and the prison employees were extremely receptive to our help.”
The job fair established a new relationship between the FCI and Pitt-Bradford, and Maguire and Ransom were soon looking for a new project to tackle. The prison, Maguire said, needed someone to teach its “ultimate job search” class for inmates who are within a couple of years of being released.
The SIFE students were up for the challenge.
Maguire then brought in the Criminal Justice Club and its adviser, Dr. Tony Gaskew, assistant professor of criminal justice. All of the students met with prison staff to receive their binders with the curriculum and learn basic visitor procedures, but teaching the inmates is up to them.
The criminal justice students visit on Thursdays, the SIFE students on Fridays. They spend two hours going over resumes, applications, interview techniques and tips for making a good first impression. Students come and go as their subject permits, but two have gone every week.
Katie Pitner, a junior criminal justice major from Sugar Grove, and Vanessa Durland, a criminal justice major from Meshoppen, have visited every week and are clearly in charge and comfortable with what they’re doing when they arrive for their second-to-last session.
It wasn’t that way at first, though, admitted Durland, who said she was nervous her first time visiting the prison.
Ransom puts it a little more strongly. “They were scared to death the first time,” he said. Romainne Harrod, a sophomore English education major from Peoria, Ariz., who took part with SIFE, said she was extremely nervous on her first trip to the prison.
“These are all criminals,” she said, “but the correctional officers made me feel secure.”
Alyssa Smith, a sophomore SIFE student, said, “The first week I went was an eye opener – to say the least. But I wasn’t scared off.”
After several weeks, Durland said she began to relax and even reconsider her plans to attend law school.
“I think we’re learning more than the inmates,” she said, and is now considering working with prisoners.
Now both she and Pitner show considerable poise in the room full of 15 or so inmates.
Pitner is calm and confident as she walks into the cinder block chapel, gathering a group of inmates and going over their resumes that they’ve prepared for her. She gives her advice like a pro, and the inmates take it seriously.
Another student, Ryan Monoski, a criminal justice major from Centre Hall who is visiting for his first time, does more listening than advising.
“This is a very unique environment, and it takes time for the student to adjust,” Gaskew said.
Maguire said her business students, who didn’t have the same knowledge of the criminal justice system as Gaskew’s, were a bit scared at first, “but once they went in and realized they could do it, they were fine.”
The students get a dose of confidence and compassion; the inmates get to interact with “regular people.”
That interaction, Gaskew said, is as valuable as any information being imparted from the bound curriculum.
“Due to the long federal prison sentences faced by many of the inmates and limited contact with family and friends, working with the students provides inmates a glimpse of the outside world and a realistic insight into the unique employment challenges facing them upon their release.”
Gaskew believes these types of programs also greatly benefit the students, by allowing them a first-hand and personalized perspective on the “the full circle” of the criminal justice system.
“From an academic standpoint, to read about our federal correctional institutions is one thing. But to actually observe and speak to the federal inmates participating in this type of re-entry initiative provides an incredible real-world learning experience for the students,” Gaskew said.
Pitner agreed. “In class, you learn the law enforcement aspect, but by coming here, you get to know how they got here. It really humanizes the situation. I really enjoy coming here every week. It’s a different type of environment.”
Pitner leads a discussion with the inmates on first impressions – what to wear when job hunting and what type of outgoing message is appropriate to leave on a phone. It might seem like the college students wouldn’t have enough experience themselves to help someone find employment, but who better to talk about the grind of applying for minimum-wage jobs with retailers, grocers and fast-food restaurants?
The students and professors plan to continue to share their real-world knowledge with those who have been removed from the outside world for years. They’ve recruited members of the staff to take part as interviewers in the prison’s annual mock job fair. Next semester, Pitner plans to return with students to teach a class on how crime affects victims, and Maguire is developing a new course that Ransom is sure will be popular: entrepreneurship.
Maguire, who is creating the class with the help of the Small Business Administration, said that in many ways a class in entrepreneurship is ideal for those who may have to make their own second chances.
Maguire said, “If you want to make your own fate and work where you want to work, sometimes the answer is to do it yourself.”
Maguire said after her very first visit to the prison, she felt an obligation to help give inmates tools they could use to succeed if they choose to.
For Harrod, the trips to the prison have been more than a resume builder. “I have learned to appreciate more the luxury of being able to wake up whenever and go where I want freely without having to check in with someone,” she said. “My perception of the inmates has changed a bit, because some of them do seem like standup guys, but somewhere along the line, they made horrible mistakes that changed their lives. If we have done our jobs right, these men will return home and make a change.”