Students get first-hand view of life in prison

Jill Martin

Meghan Dwyer wasn’t expecting this.

Though the inmates at Graterford State Correctional Institute are convicted for crimes such as murder, rape, arson and assault, the senior found many of them engrossed in worthwhile pastimes such as community outreach programs and education.

She said, “This experience changed my viewpoint of things in prison. Many of the men were very well-educated, well-spoken and had a lot to say.”

GSCI, a maximum security prison just 31 miles from Philadelphia, houses approximately 3,200 inmates, and many of them are the country’s more violent criminals, convicted of major felonies.

Despite this, students in Department of Sociology Chair Thomas Arvanites’ Penology and Corrections course visited GSCI last Saturday to assist the inmates in their annual Run-A-Thon. His previous classes have made similar visits.

Arvanites said, “This is a very select group of inmates. These guys are the cream of the crop when it comes to crime.”

The Run-A-Thon is aimed at raising money for a different Philadelphia charity each year. This year, the prison raised money for Bridgeway Inc., a mentoring program for low-income youth in Philadelphia. Inmates at all 24 adult prisons in the state participate in the event. Last year 245 inmates ran a total of 1,918 miles and raised approximately $800 at GSCI. In 2000, a statewide total of $31,453 was raised.

University students who participated in the event spent the afternoon with prisoners, counting laps for the approximately 175 inmates running around the prison track. The afternoon provided students with the opportunity to mingle with the prisoners and find out what life behind bars is like.

“It is interesting to see the students and the inmates interacting,” Arvanites said. “Many times at this event you would see two or three inmates in conversation with one or two students. It is like a picnic without the food.”

“I talked to one man who is getting his GED, so he was always in class and studying,” said junior Kristen LaMothe. “He and others I talked to seemed very educated.”

Overall, the students had a positive evaluation of their experience.

Senior Davina Goldammer said, “This was a really good experience because many people with criminal justice majors don’t get a chance to do this.”

While the Run-A-Thon was in progress, some of the inmates discussed their experiences and feelings with the students.

Dean Ali Camp, an inmate at GSCI, said, “I think it’s a lesson for outside people to come in here and see what it is like. It also gives us a sense of hope that someone outside cares about us.”

An inmate named Nick also added, “We all appreciate you coming in here and taking the time to spend with us and talk with us. It truly is a blessing.”

Camp discussed his hopes for the future saying, “For such a long time, I was in trouble and confused as to where I fit in as a man. Now I’m coming around and finding help in other people, exercise and education.”

As a man who enjoys listening to jazz, rhythm and blues and “what the young people would call hip hop,” Camp said, “I am the kind of guy who would try anything just once for the experience. I don’t want to leave this place the way I came in. After 14 years of incarceration, it would be a waste to go back into the world and add to the problem.”

Other classes that participate in visiting the prison include Dr. Lance Hannon’s Criminology classes and Dr. Joseph Betz’s Philosophy of Criminal Justice classes.