SARASOTA, Fla. (Dec. 17, 2019) – USF Sarasota-Manatee criminology students are taking their education on the road in a unique program that has the students visiting the Sarasota County Correctional Facility each week to learn first-hand about prisoner reentry programs.
The class, Prisoner Reentry and Recidivism, enables students to interact with corrections officers, inmates and social workers to learn how officials at the correctional facility are working to reduce recidivism, the tendency for inmates to return to incarceration following their release.
The course culminates with students developing their own program recommendations, which then are presented to the inmates, corrections deputies and county sheriff’s officials for feedback and discussion purposes.
“To connect with people there and to hear their personal stories, it made this class much more impactful for me,” junior Brittany Aburto, a psychology major, said. “This wasn’t just theoretical. What we saw and what we experienced was real. The class was so powerful.”
Jessica Grosholz, an assistant professor of criminology, introduced the class five years ago as a way to broaden her students’ understanding of the criminal justice system.
The course is taught twice weekly, one day in the classroom and one day at either the correctional facility or the Sarasota Salvation Army, which operates a substance abuse recovery program. The class has since become a favorite of criminology majors, many of whom aim to work in criminal justice, pursue graduate degrees or attend law school.
“To have hands-on, real-word experience is more valuable than just the lectures on their own,” Grosholz said. “Also, most of these students have never visited a correctional facility, and this class helps open their eyes to reentry and recidivism programs on the ground and how our criminal justice system operates on a daily basis.”
Recently, the students presented their program ideas. Working together, they researched existing reentry and recidivism programs and interviewed incarcerated men and women, deputies and Salvation Army representatives. Then they developed their own ideas to present to the group.
Among the proposals were a work-release program, two physical fitness regimens to help inmates tackle stress and a mentoring program that matches individuals currently incarcerated with those who successfully reentered society and rebuilt their lives.
“For the mentoring program, we thought that if the men saw someone who was successful after their release they might think that they can do that, too,” said Aburto, who wants to pursue clinical psychology. “The idea is to inspire the men who are facing release and give them practical advice about what works and what doesn’t work as they move forward.”
After the students’ presentations, they fielded questions about the proposals, including how they might be carried out and possible ramifications and obstacles involved. The presentations lasted 15-20 minutes each and occurred in a section of the facility reserved for men due to be released in four to six weeks. The students worked in groups of four or five to hone their ideas.
“Their ideas were well-crafted, and showed that they did a lot of outside research,” Grosholz said. “They were very insightful.”
Among other proposals was one in which physical trainers visit the facility to develop exercises to help inmates cope with anxiety, both while awaiting release and as they reenter society.
“These would be exercises that the inmates could do anywhere and without equipment, so the correctional facility wouldn’t have to spend a lot to support the program, and the inmates would be able to perform them before and after their release,” said Elizabeth Kemker, a freshman criminology major.
Kemker, who is considering law school, explained that the anxiety inmates experience is often compounded once they are released and tasked with finding jobs, maintaining sobriety and reconnecting with family. Unfortunately, many return to destructive patterns during their readjustment. Physical fitness might help alleviate that pressure, she said.
Allyson Scott, a junior criminology major and an inmate property officer at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, said Grosholz’s class helped reinforce her understanding of law enforcement and validated her career plans to work as a deputy.
“This class, coupled with the professional experience I am gaining, has provided me with a real-life perspective of criminology,” Scott said. “It engages students and gives them a sense of what really happens in law enforcement and a correctional facility. Personally, it confirmed for me that this is what I want to do when I graduate, to be a deputy and to help and protect people.”
To learn more about USF Sarasota-Manatee’s criminology degree program, visit usfsm.edu/academics/programs-and-majors/undergraduate/criminology/index.aspx.
For more about USF Sarasota-Manatee, visit www.usfsm.edu.