Change in Perspective: Going to a Liberal Arts College

Izzy Wollfarth

Editor’s Note: I want to preface by saying I am by no means an expert on penal reform in any way but it is something that is new to me and I would love to share it with others who are like me.

Growing up, I was never really told simply how to treat others different from me. Sure, I was told to have appropriate manners, and be respectful to those older, but I don’t ever remember being told how to see differences. After some thought, I think I never had this explained to me as a kid because I have always believed that everyone regardless of race, sexual identity, and beliefs deserves kindness, love, respect, and understanding. I feel as though this belief should just be innate. As a kid, and still now, it is sometimes hard for me to not play devil’s advocate on various controversial subjects. I seem to always find myself seeing both sides of the argument, and while retaining my beliefs, always making sure to validate opposing ideas. Coming to a liberal arts college, this mindset was only enhanced. 

While only in my second year of college, I feel I have been exposed to situations where I really get to understand issues and ask challenging questions. For example, this year I am enrolled in a course entitled “Mass Incarceration.” In this course, we discuss prison reform and how the penal system has evolved through centuries. With this, we find the root of problems within the criminal justice system and theorize why they might be so. The prison system and crime is not a frequently discussed topic between millennials. However, when it does come up most people usually have an opinion. Most people would say the prison system is quite effective: bad people are kept away from civilization and any bad treatment they get, they deserve. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” “Eye for an eye.” I can’t get upset at this opinion because I used to feel the same way. Maybe even more so where I would say that if you were even accused of a crime you are guilty in some way. Man, did my required liberal arts course take me for a whirl. 

While it is still true that every person is deserving of respect and equal treatment does this idea still apply when discussing prisoners? I think so, and I will attempt to explain in words just based on my personal experience. 

Recently, within the requirements for this course, I got the opportunity to visit a therapeutic prison. I didn’t know this prior, but Rhodes actually conducts a program at this prison where they help inmates receive an education while they are incarcerated. As students enrolled in this specific course, we are allowed the chance to go and help the inmates progress in their education. This not only helps us learn more about our own study, but helps the inmates as well. When arriving at the prison I was not sure how my thought process would change.

 I was still intimidated by the large fences covered in barbed wire, and I was still afraid of criminals. It was all quite strange because upon meeting the first inmate, I felt nothing negative. I was not afraid or intimidated like I would’ve expected. In fact, I felt the same way I would talking to any other person in my community. Even as they were explaining their life in prison, I felt unphased and simply listened attentively to the different perspective they had on life. I started not to think about what they had done or why they were there, but that they were open to me and so I would be open to them. Soon after, our class was introduced to more inmates. We were separated into small groups where we each discussed the course reading in their program. One topic that my group discussed was how, even in older pieces of literature, human nature remains the same. We all seemed to agree that while reading, a character’s motives might seem irrational or obsessive, but maybe we just aren’t open to what they are feeling. 

Sometimes in society, people are quick to make judgments on issues without really researching or fully understanding the topic. As people, we are not necessarily to blame for this because this is something almost integrated into our normal mindset. This is an idea called “just world thinking” making it easy for us to ignore the deeper side of issues. If this is hard to understand, maybe an example would help. Let’s take the criminal justice/penal system for example, since they are the main basis for this article. Just from common knowledge it is easy to say that the penal system is good. A person may not see any harm in our prison system because it makes sense to them: bad people belong in prison, don’t commit the crime if you can’t do the time, bad people don’t deserve to be a part of society. While it is easy to say these things and while I myself have said some of these things at one time, there became a point where I stepped back. I started to look at all my arguments (bad people deserve to be in jail, if a person commits a crime they do the time, bad people do not deserve to be given the same rights as me) and I found a common thread: I am talking about people. I am talking about people who regardless of what they did or if they are in prison or not are just people. If they must be put in prison then they should at least get the basic necessities of life. 

Just from my brief visit to the prison I learned that the inmates I was talking to were not even supplied with proper medical care. Additionally, the food in prisons is so bad that people are actually formulating diabetes in prison from the food they are given to survive. In some prisons, people are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and only get 1 hour to go outside. Additionally, in one week inmates are only allowed to shower three times a week at a designated time for all. Aside from all these facts, can face worst things like sexual abuse, mental health neglect and financial burdens. 

Referring back to my personal group discussion with the inmates I started to think. Maybe the character in that book we are reading is going through something that, if we step back, we can understand. Throughout the rest of the conversation our group agreed on different ideas revolving around human nature. This whole experience really made me think. It made me think enough to write this whole article at 3:00am on a Thursday. I think sometimes we as a society need to go back to the roots of what makes a just society. Personally, for me this is love, this is treating another person like they matter when maybe they don’t think they do. Sometimes it is hard for us as people to accept everyone. This is something I struggle with even today, if someone hurts me or hurts my family, how can I forgive them? Being in this mindset and going to visit these inmates, I think I found out how I can forgive and how I can change my mindset to understand better. How can I look at person who has challenged me and my beliefs and accept them for who they are and what they have been through? Well, I just talk to them. I understand them and I learn. Maybe it is because of the liberal art mindset, but maybe it’s also because I’ve allowed myself to be open. I started with opening my mind and my heart to create something really cool, an open conversation. And it’s been great!