Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman community gets involved with Wash. State Penitentiary

The Washington State Penitentiary is a five minute drive and less than two miles away from Whitman. This penitentiary is located on 540 acres of farmland, consists of four separate facilities based on the custody level of the offender and employs over 900 people. The close proximity of the Washington State Penitentiary to Whitman gives excellent opportunities for study.

“The Prison Research Group [PRG] is an entirely voluntary extra-curricular program that has been in existence since the early ’80s. It originally developed out of an idea proposed by Steve Rubin, the retired Whitman psychologist, who deserves most of the credit for this wonderful Whitman institution,” said Keith Farrington, professor of sociology and original co-founder of the PRG. “It is an opportunity for interested students, faculty, staff and employees and administrators at the Washington State Penitentiary and other criminal justice officials in Walla Walla to get together once a month and sit for an hour to discuss what’s going on in the field of criminal justice in the nation and in Walla Walla.”

In fact, last week members of PRG, who also work at the Washington State Penitentiary here in Walla Walla, invited PRG to conduct their monthly meeting at the penitentiary’s administration building.

But the group doesn’t just stop there. PRG visits other states and other prisons besides the penitentiary in Walla Walla. “We visit the local juvenile justice system and the Walla Walla County Jail. We visit other prisons in Washington and Oregon,” said junior Seren Pendleton-Knoll. “We’re hoping to visit prisons in Australia over this school year’s spring break.”

Each individual within the group looks at the prison and conducts their research differently. Some Whitman students use this group as research for their theses, such as Viviana Gordon, a senior who has been in the group for over a year.

“My thesis is going to be about prisoner re-entry. I am working with the STAR project in town, which stands for Successful Transition and Rehabilitation,” said Gordon. “I’m going to be looking at the barriers for Latino male prisoners reintegrating into the Walla Walla community.”

Other students are deeply interested in the criminal justice system but do not necessarily integrate the group into their senior theses. Many student members of PRG are actually majoring in areas that have no apparent connection to prisons and criminal behavior.
“I like to study the effects of prison on prisoners. Lots of non-violent people go to prison, and then when they’re in typical prison environments with more violent prisoners, they come out [of prison] with more violent mentalities,” said Sarah Deming, a sophomore. “I also am interested in comparing the re-offense rates at different prisons.”

The term in the prison system used to describe repeated criminal behavior or re-offenders is “recidivism.” According to the Washington State Department of Corrections Web site, “Washington’s [recidivism] rate has climbed from 31 percent to 37 percent over the last 10 years…[and] over 3,500 offenders release[d] in 2006 will commit new crimes by 2011.”
Researching why recidivism rates have climbed in the past 10 years is complicated. Two prisons and their curriculums cannot only be compared to determine why their recidivism rates might be significantly different. Prisons vary in size, security measures, type of prisoners and their crimes, location and the curriculums that they offer. All these differences must be calculated into the comparison.

“When you are comparing prisons, it is extremely important to compare similar sized prisons,” said a Washington State Penitentiary employees. “In the same way, comparisons should be made between whole states and their varying policies.”

Varying programs are offered at different prisons. Programs can range from life skills such as parenting to job skills and educational fundamentals. According to the Web site, the Washington State Penitentiary offers various activities, focusing heavily on family bonding and “Offender Change” programs. Unfortunately, programs are not always effective: especially with regards to the type of offender and if he or she has re-offended.

“A majority of the inmates do not care about the programs. They are going to go right back out and re-offend,” said the employee. “Programs should be geared towards the first time offenders because that is the group most likely to be rehabilitated. Most offenders who are down for their third or even second time are most likely going to re-offend.”

Most inmates become involved with programs only to earn themselves points towards their release, instead of doing the programs for the skills themselves. If PRG wants to check whether the prisoner truly wants to be reformed, the employee said, “Make sure to examine the prisoner’s crime, interview [the prisoner] for sincerity and never promise [the prisoner] anything in return for participating in the programs. Otherwise, they’ll only be completing them for the points.”

Farrington noted that many students enter the group with high hopes of fixing the prison system and helping the prisoners incarcerated inside. They come in with “Utopian” ideas only to find out through research that these ideals cannot always be achieved. This causes students to become, as Farrington said, “more realistic” about what can: and what can’t: occur within prison walls.

When asked if she felt anyone could be rehabilitated, Gordon said, “No, I don’t, unfortunately. I used to think that…. The group has made me more realistic, because a lot of times you can go in with really liberal views about the prison because it’s broken, but when you’re there speaking with a lot of professionals and correctional officers…and they’re telling you the reality of it, then it is a much more difficult situation than you thought.”

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