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Women and Prison Course Gives Students New Perspective

January 06, 2016

Laura Lemire
Communications and Marketing
(603) 641-7242

"It's an experience that will stay with me forever." - Haley Heinrich '16

Viewers of the hit Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black may think they know something about what it's like to be a woman in a U.S. prison; but nine Saint Anselm College students learned first-hand the reality of incarceration during the fall semester's criminal justice course, CJ 367 Women and Prison, where nearly half the classes took place at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women and six incarcerated women joined them as classmates.

The course, taught by Professor Elaine Rizzo, examined the trends, issues, and policies associated with women in prison, from arrest and pathways to crime to mental health and prison culture.

Every Tuesday at the prison, a Saint Anselm student would present class material from the previous Thursday's class. The women and students then discussed issues related to female incarceration, providing the Saint Anselm group with valuable perspective on their lives behind bars.

Although their crimes were never mentioned, the women shared their experiences. They described life in prison as mothers, daughters, and friends, the challenges they faced during incarceration and reentry, and the motivation they had to help others.

"It's an experience that will stay with me forever," said senior psychology major Haley Heinrich '16.

"It really removed the stigma of criminals," said Alexandra Williamson '16, also a psychology major.

The Saint Anselm students, who ranged in majors from criminal justice to psychology to sociology, said their varying backgrounds brought different perspectives to the course. As a result, they considered issues such as the emotional well-being of the women, as well as learning valuable details about the criminal justice system.

Williamson is considering a career in high school counseling. She said speaking with one of the women about those goals not only gave her more information about the challenges that low-income teenagers' face, but also about the lack of programming available in many inner city schools.

Kayla Lanagan '16, a psychology major had a similar story; in order to better understand pathways to crime, her interest in working with children has intensified.

Heinrich agreed that the experience has her re-thinking her career plans.

"I really enjoyed this class and am happy with the information I now have, but I am also upset with what I have learned," said Heinrich. "I hope that one day I get the chance to make positive changes for incarcerated women."

The framework for their policy discussion came from the founding principles of Catholic social teaching, which lead Professor Rizzo to ask her students, "What's your vision for a just world?"

Rizzo's goals for the class were to better understand current trends, obstacles, and the role gender plays in female incarceration, as well as to provide students with tools to identify social issues, become engaged citizens, and to encourage them to be active agents in promoting social justice.

"The goals were definitely achieved," said Rizzo. "I couldn't have asked for a more satisfying outcome."

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