‘Novans take a look behind bars

Laura Christopher

Graterford Maximum Security Prison sits like a momentous stone fortress in the mountainous fields of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. However, it is not a typical fortress to keep enemies out; it is a fortress to keep convicted prisoners in. But what are these prisoners actually like? Are they really as movies and television portray them to be, harden men who we need to be scared of? Are they just innately inclined to break the law and do wrong? What happenings of fate caused them to end up in a maximum security prison behind bars and subject to “lockdowns?”

Dr. Joseph Betz has been bringing students to Graterford for the past several years. Dr. Betz is also one of the Villanova professors involved with the voluntary Villanova program to bring educational classes to the prisoners. He teaches a course to some of the inmates at Graterford. Dr. Betz believes it is important for Villanova students to see what prison and its prisoners are truly like. He believes it helps to remove the stereotypes surrounding prisoners. It shows that these men may be prisoners but they are still ordinary people.

“Most of the men in here are regular people who got mixed up with bad things,” said Dr. Betz, outside of the primary security gate of the prison. “The students need to understand that, but for the grace of God, they too could be in here.”

Waiting to be admitted into the prison, the students were quiet not knowing what to expect or already expecting the worst. In a matter of minutes, they would be in a room with five men, who will most likely spend the rest of their lives behind bars – men who the U.S. justice system named murders.

The students signed their names, showed identification and had their hands stamped. The entire place leaves everyone feeling a little colder and a little more solemn. The students then proceeded through metal detector and locked gates. Then everyone was led by a guard into a room with a circle of plastic chairs inside. Sitting spread out in these chairs are five men that quite possibly may never called themselves “free” again. The students reluctantly take seats among these five men: Alfonzo, Charles, Stan, Michael and Tom. The students are slightly anxious, yet curious at what these men, so close in proximity have to share.

The men begin to tell their stories. Stories of innocent, stories of guilt, stories of sadness and injustice, stories of prison. The men talk with ease and eloquence while the students listen intently with faces of shock or empathy. The camaraderie and accepting-ness of these five men make the students feel comfortable to ask anything. Wittiness, passion and sorrow filled the room as the men spoke of where they have been, where they are and where they dare hope to be.

The students left after a period of listening to and questioning these life prisoners. All of the students took away something from the prison as they passed through the procession of security procedures.

“As a criminal justice major, I felt it was important for me to see this side of the justice system,” said Emily Lagrotteria, a junior about second time to Graterford. To see that sometimes it doesn’t always work and to know that the people in prison, even the guilty ones, are not all bad men. It’s just not that black and white.” “I really would recommend the experience to everyone, especially those people who may be harboring stereo-types about prison.”

The message which the prisoners sent out was clear. Alfonzo, Charles, Stan, Michael and Tom may be convicted prisoners but they were still men and they want to be treated like that. They are still humans regardless of their imprisonment in Graterford.