Students record reformation of Belizean prison for Spring Term

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University of Indianapolis Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice Kevin Whiteacre and Associate Professor of Sociology Amanda Miller shared the results of their Spring Term trip in 2014 in a faculty forum on Feb. 5.

After getting permission from both UIndy and Belize’s Institute for Social and Cultural Research, Whiteacre and Miller took 12 female students to Belize to collect oral histories from the staff members of Belize Central Prison. Ten of the students were undergraduates and two were graduate students, according to Whiteacre. For three days, each student interviewed staff members of Belize Central Prison, which is the only prison in the country. Whiteacre said the reason they wanted to collect the oral histories from staff members was to document the changes that had occurred at Belize Central Prison.

According to Whiteacre, in 2002, the Belizean government handed control of the prison to the nonprofit organization Kolbe Foundation. The Kolbe Foundation, according to its website, is an organization dedicated to managing the prison system of Belize and was started by Belizeans as well. Whiteacre said that since the management of the prison shifted, everything from sanitation to food to programs offered to the inmates has improved.

“It’s the one prison for the country, and it was a pretty bad place,” he said. “And just by simple professionalization of the management, they really turned it around.… We just thought that could serve as a model for other developing countries, maybe, who are looking to transform institutions and whatnot. So we just decided it was something that needed to be recorded.”

Miller, who was co-leader for the trip, said that documenting the progress the Kolbe Foundation had made with the prison was not the only reason the trip was interesting. She said she was excited to learn about the perspective of the staff and the criminals the prison held.

For three days, each student who went on the trip interviewed one person per day, resulting in 36 interviews total. Whiteacre, in the meantime, interviewed Chairman of the Kolbe Foundation John Woods.

Whiteacre said there were two shifts on the days they interviewed the staff members. One group of six students would interview their assigned person before lunch,  and the next group would interview their assigned person after lunch.

Sophomore criminal justice major Katie Budd was one of the students on the trip. Budd said she interviewed the prison’s accountant, one of the counselors and a female officer. Budd said all three interviews gave her a wide range of perspectives on what life was like working in the prison. She said her average interview was about two hours long.

Senior environmental sustainability major Misty Padilla was another student on the trip. She learned about it after seeing Whiteacre’s promotional table in the Schwitzer Student Center and said that she chose to go because she thought it would help her gain a lot of real-life experiences. Padilla interviewed the chief of security, who she said had seen the transition happen when the Kolbe Foundation took over the prison management. She also interviewed the head of construction and the head of the records department. Padilla said she learned a lot about Belize, as well as the prison, through the interviews.

“After transcribing everything, I feel like I got a lot of valuable information, and not just on Belize. I learned a lot about where they came from and why they think Belize is the way it is. And I think ultimately that is what we were looking for,” she said. “ … I feel like each person was different in what they thought, so it was interesting to hear everyone’s different opinions.”

Whiteacre and Miller said the changes the Kolbe Foundation has made to the prison include having woodshop, mason, and computer programs as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Other changes include having proper sanitation, better meals, drinking water and more privileges for the inmates. Whiteacre and Miller said that most of the program’s purpose is to equip the inmates with skills, so they can get a job when they are released, which could decrease their chances of returning to prison.

“One of the people we interviewed said, ‘Prison is the punishment,’” Miller said. “‘Not being free is the punishment. We shouldn’t be punishing you further. We should be helping you to avoid this in the future.’”

Whiteacre said that unemployment in Belize is a big problem, so if inmates can get a job, they may not resort to crime again.

“The extents to which you increase their odds of getting a job when they get out, you increase the odds of success,” he said.

One of the interesting things Whiteacre and Miller said was learned from the trip is that many of the staff members either had been previously incarcerated or had family that at one point had been incarcerated, a finding they shared at the faculty forum.

“All the staff that we’ve talked to so far have a very much rehabilitative view towards corrections,” he said. “And a lot of them made a point of talking about how they are not all that different from the prisoners.”

After the interviews were concluded, the students, Whiteacre and Miller spent the next seven days visiting Mayan ruins, canoeing and seeing Belize’s National Museum. Whiteacre and Miller said the next step, since the interviews are complete, is to collect their findings and publish the transcriptions in a book, which they would donate to the museum. Budd said that the idea of the book is really exciting for her.

“It’s kind of fascinating for me because it makes it seem like we’re part of something that’s so much bigger than going on a trip and interviewing people,” she said. “…I never thought I would be a part of helping someone do research that would go into a book. So that’s kind of fascinating.”

Miller said she hopes this book and this experience will provide countries with a model to use for their prisons.

“I hope this is encouragement for a lot of staff training programs in the U.S. and abroad,” she said. “There’s a very clear attitude of redemption among this staff [Belize Central Prison’s staff] that inmates are worthy of and capable of rehabilitation. And I think a lot of people understand the ‘capable of,’  but I think it’s harder to get people to buy into the ‘worthy of’ aspect.”

Whiteacre and Miller plan to take students back to Belize to interview the prison’s 35 female inmates aiming for the Spring Term of 2016.

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