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Sociology Students Work with Dept. of Corrections

Professor Alice Fothergill (at right) with students from her senior semilar course.

In December of 2012, Jill Evans, Director of Women and Family Services for Vermont’s Department of Corrections (DOC), contacted the Department of Sociology looking for some assistance.  She wanted to see if the department had students who would like to be interns on a DOC project, and if some faculty members would be willing to lend their expertise.

The timing was perfect.  Every spring the department offers a unique seminar for seniors, the Sociology Service Learning Internship Seminar.  In this course, eighteen students work 10-15 hours per week in an internship at a local non-profit agency or organization, and then fulfill an academic component in the classroom with weekly seminars, readings, discussions, and research papers.  Seven students in the course signed up for the DOC internships.  They began in January along with their professor for the seminar, Alice Fothergill, who taught the course this spring.

First, after security trainings and clearances, the students started in various volunteer roles at the women’s prison in South Burlington.  Several students, including one who studied dance at UVM, led weekly Zumba exercise classes. Several others led weekly “Open Gym” nights, where the women inmates could play volleyball and use the exercise equipment, under the supervision, and with the company of, the student interns.  There was also “Nail Night,” where the students and the inmates did fingernail painting.  Finally, students volunteered at “Teen Night,” where teenage children of incarcerated mothers came to the prison to have a special visiting time, again supervised and with the company of the interns.  The students were given the responsibility to run all of these programs effectively and safely.   Students expressed informally (and also in class writings) how incredibly valuable and eye-opening these experiences were to them.

Second, the students assisted with the Family Survey Project, which was the task that initiated the collaboration.  The DOC Director of Women and Family Services needed to conduct a survey with inmates at all the prisons in Vermont, so she could improve the programming for inmates who had close family members, especially children, on the outside.  

Her specific reasons for needing the survey were:

  • To gather data to understand what kinds of families (biological and other) and supports Vermont inmates have.
  • To gather data to understand the impact of an incarcerated loved one on family and children, the impact of the separation on the inmate, and the ability to maintain healthy and pro-social supportive relationships during the incarcerated period.
  • To gather data and understand how DOC policy/practice undermines the ability of family and children to maintain those healthy and supportive relationships.
  • To analyze the data for trends and patterns that might result in recommendations to DOC about policy or practice change to improve the outcomes.

She asked for help with conceptualizing the survey, writing the questions, field-testing the survey, and ultimately going to all the prisons in the state to conduct the survey.  This is an enormous project, but the students and faculty were not deterred!  The students worked closely with the DOC and learned firsthand how hard it is to construct a really good, clear survey. They received help from faculty members in the department, especially from Sociology Professor Nick Danigelis, who is an expert in survey construction.  When the survey was completed, the students field-tested it at several Burlington “transition houses” with recently released inmates; this process helped them improve awkward wording or unclear questions. 

Finally, the students headed to the prisons. According to Fothergill, “We traveled to the men’s prisons in St. Albans and in Windsor.  The students and I spent many days conducting the survey with the inmates. We learned about their children and their families, what their incarceration meant to their family relationships, how often they saw them at visits, or called them or wrote letters. The students spent hours hearing about what these visits and phone calls meant to the inmates and how important it was that they had those connections to the outside. Some inmates were going to be incarcerated for short periods (a few weeks), but others we interviewed were there for the rest of their lives.  It was an intense and significant experience for all of us.” 

The survey project is not yet finished.  Even though the course came to an end, four students who are staying in Burlington this summer after graduation have volunteered to spend their own time coding the data and putting it into a statistical software program (SPSS).  They are also going to conduct survey interviews at prison facilities in Chittenden, Marble Valley, and St. Johnsbury.

As part of their assignments, students wrote letters, op eds for newspapers, and some wrote directly to the DOC.  This allowed them to tell a wider audience about their experience, to encourage others to volunteer at prisons, and to encourage the DOC to improve inmates’ connections to their families.  One of the students recently had her story published in the Burlington Free Press.

This fall Professor Fothergill will turn the reins over to Associate Professor Kathy Fox for her Criminal Justice Seminar.  Her eighteen students will complete the survey at the remaining prisons and will take the data, analyze it, and make recommendations to the DOC and the State of Vermont.

This DOC-Sociology Department collaboration provided students with an amazing opportunity to put their sociology skills and knowledge into practice, to get into the field, and to see sociology in action. They could not believe how hard it was to construct a good survey, and how moving it was to hear the stories of the inmates. This project also came at the perfect time, just as the Department of Sociology had been discussing its continued commitment to be involved in community research and to provide its expertise to community partners, while also trying to devise ways to increase that involvement.

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