It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Friday morning and students are mingling awkwardly outside the Education Center on St. Phillip Street. Dressed in baggy sweats and oversized shirts, the students engage in nervous chatter, waiting anxiously for the 7:45 departure time.
One student, rushing to class, is surprised to see her friend, in sweats, standing on the sidewalk with this group. “What are you doing here so early?” she asks.
The response: “I’m going to prison!”
In Professor Heath Hoffmann’s sociology classes, students have the opportunity each semester to tour Lieber Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Ridgeville, SC. The three hour tour is led by up to 8 incarcerated men who the South Carolina Department of Corrections calls the Operation Behind Bars (OBB) team. The OBB program is a modified version of the “scared straight” programs that gained prominence in the 1970s by exposing juvenile offenders to the harsh realities of prison. After being confronted by those who are incarcerated and seeing firsthand the drudgery of everyday life behind bars, the hope was that juveniles would be deterred from future antisocial behavior (subsequent research found these programs did not have the deterrent effect that was anticipated).
Having done nothing wrong besides enrolling in Professor Hoffmann’s class, students embark on a scaled down version of the “scared straight” experience. After being processed through security, the OBB team takes on the authority normally enjoyed by correctional officers. Hoffmann’s students are required to form two parallel lines; students are required to hold hands; and, before the tour commences, students are required to conduct a “count” to insure that all students are accounted for (just as those who are incarcerated do, 3-4 times each day).
Once the count has “cleared,” the OBB team leads students through the “yard” to tour a dorm. Here, about 140 men stand (or sit in wheelchairs) and mingle outside their cells as students get a glimpse of the 6’ x 10’ room that 2-3 men share. Students then walk to the “restricted housing unit” (RHU) (also known as “segregation” or “the hole”), as OBB team members yell at them to “walk faster” and “close up the lines.”
Inside the RHU, students are confronted by the stale, putrid air as men pound on their cell doors and scream out at them and the accompanying officers. Students pass through the mildewed showers used three times a week by those in the RHU, before moving into the recreation yard—8’ x 20’ enclosed cages that resemble oversized dog runs at an animal shelter.
The tour ends in the prison’s visitation room where each member of the OBB team shares his life story—his family life, the role of alcohol and other drugs in his life, the crime(s) each committed, the sentence he received and a warning to students to make good decisions and stay on their current path.
When asked why he takes his students to prison, Professor Hoffmann says, “So many of our society’s institutional shortcomings—be it within the economy, schools, politics and/or the family—pave a road to prison for many of our citizens. This is hopefully the only opportunity that my students will have to see the inside of a prison—an experience that sheds light on the almost default solution (prison) to dealing with those who break the law. This experience also challenges students’ assumptions about what people are like who are incarcerated.”
In fact, one student reported, “I definitely thought those 7 guys [the OBB team] were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It was very hard to believe that they had killed someone or multiple people,” challenging her notion of what a “murderer” would be like. Katie Joiner, a first year student in the Honors College, also commented on how the incarcerated men she met were not consistent with her preconceived notions; “when you hear about murderers in the media…the media talks about the crime that was committed and only gives biographical information that is pertinent to the crime which is usually basic and negative. This makes sense in some ways and may be because most high profile murder cases are extreme examples of murder…I had always thought of murderers as though they were the most important thing about them; as though that was who they were essentially; as though their soul was a murderer. I was startled to realize that the murder was an event that came to define the person; not that the person was always and will always be a murderer. I’m not sure if that’s clear exactly, and ethically it may be that murder is the single most important part of a person because it’s so totally and fundamentally evil; but I had a hard time reconciling the fact that I was talking to murderers with some of the men standing before me. They were not first murderers—they had murdered. Regardless of the crime, I respected all of them. I would be interested however to meet some of the prisoners with less character to see if that shifted my perception. For example, some of the ones who were not in the character dorm or were on death row.”
So, why do students want to go to prison?
Rachel Park, a first year student in the Honors College, commented that the prison tour “was truly an eye-opening trip. Experiences like these teach you more than any college class could…For the most part, they [the OBB team members] are just like us and they kept bringing this up: that you’re just one bad decision away from being behind these bars. You could see in their eyes and hear when they shared their testimonies that they would trade their place with us any day. It seemed they all regretted their decisions and it was eye-opening—truly eye-opening—to see and to hear from the men.”
Professor Hoffmann also hopes that the prison tours will give students the opportunity to examine the efficacy of prison for responding to crime and deterring future criminal behavior among those who are incarcerated. Hoffmann is confident that this level of reflection is occurring among his students, referencing the response of Katie, the Honors College student quoted above, who notes, “Upon leaving Lieber, I was struck by how much potential the prison system has; which may not be the best reaction upon leaving. I think it would really be a good thing for society to reprimand deviance and rehabilitate people back into society who have made really bad mistakes and for whatever reason have gotten caught up in this cycle of deviance. I was also struck by how broken it is right now. Well, first I had sort of forgotten weirdly that the prison is a state entity and what all that entails. I think I assumed that the problems I see in SC public schools, in SC libraries and DSS and so would not be present in South Carolina prisons. But I mean, of course they are. The prisons are, it seems, underfunded and certainly understaffed just like many other state departments; there seems to be a tangle of bureaucracy and a lot of good ideas were being executed poorly or slowly. For example, the idea of the character dorm was a really good one but it was being rolled out so slowly and so narrowly that I’m not sure that it’s really effective and it’s definitely not going to be a broad solution within the next year.”