St. Lawrence Correctional Facility

Photographer:

Chester Hojnicki

Caption:

During my time at the St. Lawrence Correctional facility, I volunteered as an assistant in a life skills class. The life skills class aimed to provide inmates with valuable social skills that would help the individuals to lead a more prosperous and healthy life after being released from the facility. The topics that we discussed in our class included: how to treat others, how to seek help when you need it, how to break off unhealthy relationships, the twelve laws of karma and how to get a job if an individual is a convicted felon. The class was taught by a counselor named Sharon who had extensive experience in the New York state prison system. Sharon’s vast experience with inmates allowed her to create a classroom atmosphere in which she demanded the respect, effort and attention from her students. Thus, all of the students who entered her class knew that if they acted out of place in Sharon’s class they would have more to fear than just the corrections officers. When I was thinking about pictures to start this essay off with, I wanted to choose an image that would accurately depict the beginning of each day that I experienced at the prison. The above image is the main entrance to the Canton Correctional facility for individuals who are visiting, volunteering or providing legal council. Each day I would walk from my car to the small black shown to the right of the main door where I would tell the corrections officer over the intercom who I was and what my reason for being at the jail was. Once my identity and reason for being at the jail had checked out, I would pass through a series of doors before arriving at the front desk where I would be checked in by another corrections officer before being accompanied through a metal detector. With nothing on my person other than the clothes I was wearing, I began my journey to our life skills classroom, where I would pass inmates-often trading glances back and forth with each other. Some snarled at me, or attempted to dwindle down my moral fibers through ice cold stares, while others were merely intrigued at the reason for my existence in they’re territory. For me, walking through this main entrance represented entering a completely different world that I had never before been exposed to, and as I entered further into the facility I transcended into a place where moral superiority did not exist, but rather gaining the respect of others was the only way I would be able to establish a common bond between my students and I. Although the above picture is not one taken of a classroom in the St. Lawrence County correctional facility, I felt it was important to include what the classroom looked like as well as what the classroom environment felt like. The number of inmates we had in a class ranged anywhere from three to eight depending on who woke up for the class and who was behaving well enough to be able to attend class that morning. On my first day, the inmates walked into the classroom, each giving me an unsure glance and not necessarily paying much attention to my presence in the room. After introducing myself and learning the names of the prisoners, the initial uneasiness that I felt had subsided, and I began to focus on our lesson plan. My role as a community volunteer was to help explain the lesson plan for the day which carried depending on what the inmates wanted to talk about that day. Although I was skeptical of the importance of teach a life skills class at first, I soon realized how necessary the skills were for the individuals. The next picture I chose to include in my essay shows a number of inmates sitting in class listening to they're teacher. I chose this picture because to me it shows the inmates on an individual level, and combats the idea that many individuals hold about incarcerated individuals being the “derelicts” of society. During my time volunteering at the correctional facility, I was unsure of how I would be perceived by the inmates in the classroom. My initial thought was that the students would see me as having some type of arrogance or superiority over them because I was a young student at a university telling them how to live they're lives. Because of this, I made it my goal to connect with each individual on the most basic level possible, whether it was through an interest in certain animals, liking a certain sports team, or having an interest in working out and physical fitness. As a result, these seemingly small common interests formed into relationships that were strong enough to the point where I earned the respect from the students in my class. I soon learned about the lives that each individual lived both in and outside of the facility as well as how many times they had been in jail or arrested. For the most part, the individuals in my class had a detailed past involving the use of drugs or alcohol which stemmed from a lack of parental guidance at a young age. I chose to include the picture of the St. Lawrence County sheriff’s badge because it represented the commitment made by the corrections officers in the facility to the rehabilitative process of the individuals. Prior to entering the facility, I had heard stories and seen through popular culture the perceived role of corrections officers. These roles often painted officers as not caring about the individuals within the facilities and viewing them as animals who would forever be a part of the prison and jail system. However, on my second day volunteer at the facility one of my students proved to me how wrong this stereotype truly was. This particular inmate discussed with me his self-esteem issues and how it was often difficult for him to communicate socially with others. As a result, the individual struggled with a severe addiction to alcohol which he attributed as being the reason to why he was in the facility. This student told me about how on one particular occasion when he would not eat or leave his cell, a corrections officer would come talk to him about how he was feeling. Although brief, this made a huge difference in the way he was feeling as it ultimately gave him an outlet other than a counselor to express his feelings to. This was not the only instance I saw of officers conversing with inmates on a human level. I also witnessed officers joking or laughing with individuals about certain topics that seemed to paint a more human picture of how the every day inmate lived they're life. The final picture that I chose for my essay shows is a comic that is meant to show individuals going through the “revolving door” of the U.S. prison system. Although I did know that recidivism was a growing problem in the Untied States, I did not know how serious it was until I began volunteering at the correctional facility. During my time volunteering, every student I had in my class had either been arrested or in jail at least once prior to they're time at the facility. Through research on the issue, I found that community outreach programs that put citizens in environment with incarcerated individuals are some of the most effective ways at lowering rates of repeat offenders. I feel that this is extremely important because society’s views on incarcerated individuals is extremely limited due to the fact that so few individuals interact with prisoners on a personal level. Thus, I believe that all students should take the opportunity to volunteer at a jail or prison in St. Lawrence county to truly understand how the rehabilitative process of our nations jails and prisons work.