Free Your Mind

While sitting through a challenging college course may feel like you're "doing time," participating in Professor Ed Wiltse's Jail Project actually requires students to spend some time at the Monroe Correctional Facility (MCF). The Jail Project is an optional service-learning component of Wiltse's Crime and Punishment in the USA course, and one that fosters a unique understanding of both the academic material at hand as well as a new look at an important cultural issue.

After years of teaching Crime and Punishment, a class that focuses on written and cinematic texts about corruption, felons, and detectives, Associate Professor and Chair of the English Department Ed Wiltse wondered if he was potentially encouraging his students to believe the story ends with incarceration. "The nightly newscast and every episode of CSI end with the slamming of the cell door as the solution to the problem, and clearly for the 2.4 million Americans behind bars, it's not the solution to anything," said Wiltse. "It's actually just the middle or the beginning of the story."

That's when Wiltse conceived the Jail Project. The project requires students to attend a series of five one-hour meetings with inmates at MCF, write a journal, present their experiences to the class, and complete an activity that promotes awareness within the community. Inside the jail, students and inmates meet around tables in a closely-watched classroom. Nazareth's Center for Service Learning sponsors the Jail Project and covers the cost of the inmates' books. Often, students experience an enthusiasm from the inmates they never expected. After a few meetings, there's also a new level of understanding and mutual respect. "A lot of people in our group had the pre-conceived notion of what jail would be like - a violent place full of murderers…" said Shawn Quinn, a junior at Nazareth who participated in the Jail Project when he was a freshman. "...It was not like that at all. (The inmates) were just like someone you would know, someone you'd feel comfortable with. My opinion definitely changed."

There is an irony that doesn't escape Wiltse or his students at the beginning of each semester. "The inmates there are judged by society to be least functional, yet they're volunteering to read a stack of books and gather in a room and talk about it. I ask my class, 'Would you really do it unless you were required to?' Students suddenly realize that something they take completely for granted is extremely valuable."