Criminal justice students visit the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
By Whitney Dreier
“This is not a tour of the Smithsonian; you’re going to want to stay with the group,” Joseph Carrier told a dozen criminal justice students as they shuffled off the mini-bus and into the lobby of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. In the days prior to the field trip, Carrier, an associate professor of criminal justice administration, had made other suggestions to his pupils: no high heels, no cleavage, no tight jeans. Subsequently, students handed over IDs and trudged through the “sniffer” wearing an assortment of Ugg boots, baggy pants and oversized hoodies. One young man wore shorts. “They’re gonna like your legs,” Carrier told him, only half joking.
Carrier was referring to offenders at JCCC, an all-male, maximum-security prison operated by the Missouri Department of Corrections. Nearly 2,000 criminals are housed in the facility, which opened in September 2004, replacing the Missouri State Penitentiary. “A lot of students have never been to the inside of a prison,” Carrier says. “They’ve driven by, seen the outside, the double-wire fence. This trip gives students an opportunity to see how these guys live and what programs are available to them.”
Sophomore Alex Bodine was among the 12 criminal justice students who caught the bus to JCCC bright and early on Nov. 15. “I hope to learn more about prison procedures and correctional practices,” he says. “I just don’t want to pass up an opportunity like this.” Bodine, who had never been in a prison previously, is taking criminal law, crime scene investigation, police in democratic society and ethics in criminal justice classes.
The first stop on the students’ tour was the Restorative Justice area, where students met four inmates, three of whom were serving double or triple life sentences for murder. The fourth was a rapist. The men – like all inmates – wore grey drawstring pants and smock-like shirts, similar to nurses’ scrubs. Patrick, a middle-aged African American with a scar down his left cheek, was the spokesman for the quartet. With great enthusiasm, he told the students about Restorative Justice – “a way of viewing, understanding and responding to crime and the effects it has on victims, communities and offenders,” according to the pamphlet he handed out. “Offenders are held personally responsible to their victims and/or community for making amends and to the extent it is possible, helping repair the damage and injuries they caused.”
Inmates in the Restorative Justice program take classes about the consequences of criminal thinking, and they give back to society by making therapeutic (weighted) quilts and vests for autistic children. Using donated fabrics, the men make colorful fidget-quilts for Alzheimer’s patients and pillows and tote bags for various charities.
“We should have a clothing drive,” whispered one student to another as she inspected a colorful quilt.
As the group left the building, Patrick handed each student Restorative Justice’s No More Victims album, a CD of nine songs recorded by inmates. With titles including “Drunk Driverz” and “Hug-A-Thug,” the songs are meant to send messages of remorse, sympathy and self-improvement.
Next, students visited the license plate factory, a high-ceilinged warehouse-type structure where metal sheets and reflective stickers churned off conveyer belts. Students averted their eyes from the urinals to the left of the door as they made their way to a machine where three inmates worked together to manually stamp letter and number combinations on aluminum plates. All Missouri plates – approximately 150,000 per month – are made in this building, and 50 to 60 inmates are paid about $60 a month to work here. “We can’t force them to work,” a correctional staff member explained. “But they lose privileges if they choose not to.”
Another employment opportunity for offenders is the woodshop, where they make wood furniture that’s sold at a steep discount to state employees and nonprofits. There’s also auto-repair and machine shops. “They teach inmates to be welders, do their own heating and air conditioning, they use inmates as labor to fix things within the facility” Carrier explains, noting that some inmates also work as graphic designers and artists. “Criminals have skills,” he says. “They do some beautiful stuff.”
Works of art aside, prison is prison, and Carrier reminded students to keep things in perspective. “They only introduced us to the men who are interested in changing their lives,” he says. “The folks who are in for murder generally do the best they can do to earn privileges; they realize they want a better existence in this facility. Just because we saw the best of the best, doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen,” he continues. “There are bad people in there.”
As students walked through the yard, among inmates, a correctional staff member explained that four murders and “a lot” of suicides have occurred at JCCC since the facility opened. She cited housing unit No. 7 as the most dangerous building on site. “The tour doesn’t go there,” she joked. No one laughed.
Students were further sobered when they were shown the inside of a cell that contained concrete-slab bunk beds and not much else. “I would never want to live there,” one student murmured.
Two hours after entering JCCC, students were released, but only after showing IDs and invisible hand stamps. They hadn’t been allowed to take notes or photos inside, but they all had handmade mementos awaiting them back in Columbia: their license plates.