By Beth Winze
I am currently away at a criminal justice conference and we had the opportunity to tour a women’s maximum security prison facility today. I became a criminal justice major because – let’s be honest – I loved crime shows, and I have a fascination with understanding and figuring out the dark and twisty minds of humans. As many times as I have done police ride-a-longs and been in contact with criminal justice professionals, I had never seen hands on what it means to be in this career field.
The walls were thick cinder blocks and speakers were every few feet in the ceiling constantly buzzing, letting inmates know where they needed to be and when. Everything was brightly lit and carried an unwelcoming sterile feeling. As we continued the tour we passed several women who either stared at us, or avoided eye contact all together. I was clearly out of place, but looking at the women at work I felt something. The more we toured the more I felt my heart go out to these women. But why? These women had done horrible things to strangers, friends, or even their own families, so I should be glad that I was seeing my tax paying dollars hard at work. But the more I looked, the more I noticed that quite a few of the women were my age. How could someone the same age as me have chosen such a different path in life that landed them with 20+ year sentences behind barbed wire fences?
We sat down in a room where two inmates faced us. They started explaining what it was like to be incarcerated there and their experiences. The second woman told us that she was there on a second-degree murder conviction. She didn’t look like a killer, and heck at 19 when she had committed the crime, she probably didn’t see herself that way either. She sat there and told us that the past 20 years she had spent in prison had reformed her. She had such hope and faith in herself that it was hard not to feel excited for all her progress.
Here we were, a group of criminal justice students, who, like the older people in our intended career field were destined to help catch, convict, and incarcerate criminals like herself. And if criminal behavior has biological tendencies like is being said, we might even be incarcerating her own relatives someday. The hard thing I realized was that the only thing that separates me from these women, is that I have not been in situations where crime was an option. I have the exact same capabilities these women do, yet I have not acted on anything.
As I left the prison, I felt a sense of relief, but also the heavy fact that some of those women were in the wrong place at the wrong time and now they serve time. Needless to say, if it had not been for touring the prison, I don’t think I would have realized the extent of humanity in inmates. They are so alike to me, they just acted in a way that landed themselves behind fences that I can leave.
I can conclude with the fact that I have a better understanding of how real the people are. They’ve been stripped of everything, because they stripped someone of everything at one point in time. No Orange is the New Black or Wentworth could have ever prepared me for what it would be like to meet a murderer.