Educator teaching inmates new perspective

Prisoners learn about their actions on victims

Amy Sowder

University of West Florida professor Cheryl Swanson has the most captive audience when she teaches.

That's because the classroom is not on campus but at the W.C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., a lifetime home for many inmates.

Holman is a maximum-security prison where death sentences are carried out by lethal injection.

In other words, this prison is no white-collar, cushy rehabilitation center.

The lessons began in June, when Swanson, an associate professor of criminal justice, walked out of her colorful office decorated with paintings by local artists and art-deco lamps to the whitewashed walls and donated pews of the Restorative Justice Honor Dorm at Holman.

"They can either vegetate or do something positive with their lives. They have to learn how to work together as a community because prison is their home," Swanson said.

Throughout the summer and into this fall semester, Swanson has used the restorative justice approach to teach victimology to small groups of prisoners. The approach teaches prisoners to empathize with and understand the impact of their actions on their victims and victims' families.

She had the inmates pick three victims they identified within the book "Transcending Reflections of Crime" by Howard Zehr, in which victims or victims' family members describe their pain and their path to transcend it.

The inmates wrote three letters: In the first one, they wrote apologies; in the second, they had to put themselves in their victims' place and write to themselves. And the final letter required the offenders to write out what they did, what they were thinking at the time and the effects of their actions.

The program can curb the domino effect of criminal behavior through family generations, Swanson said.

There also are fewer discipline reports than in the general prison population because the 177 Honor Dorm inmates learn how to handle conflict without violence, Swanson said.

UWF student Kimberly Jane Hudson, 24, visited the prison with Swanson last summer through a directive study of restorative justice.

"It's an eye-opener because I think you need to know how every area of society functions in a community, so you know why people do what they do," Hudson said.

One prisoner told Swanson that once he entered the honor dorm, he felt like he had dropped a 100-pound weight because he wasn't watching his back all the time.

Swanson felt the difference, too.

"When I walk through the prison yard by the regular prisoners, they have that edge, look and attitude you see in prison movies," Swanson said. "But in the honor dorm, it's much more relaxed, what we'd see in the free world."

The program teaches accountability to the inmates, prison chaplain Chris Summers said.

"This relational approach points to the harms of one's crime and calls for a response of general remorse," Summers said. "Studies have shown this remorse to be a key to victims' closure and offender accountability."

UWF student Neslihan Suhi, 21, is specializing in criminal justice and plans to visit the prison with Swanson this month.

Suhi wants to be a law enforcement officer.

"Restorative justice concentrates on making things right between the victim and offender," Suhi said. "It gives the victim the opportunity to be a part of the whole process, instead of being set to the side like our current system tends to do."