Fourteen Western Michigan University Department of Sociology students recently spent time in prison—the Cell Block 7 Prison Museum in Jackson, Michigan. The only prison exhibit within the walls of an operating penitentiary, Cell Block 7 is not a replica of a prison, it's a real prison where thousands of convicts have served hard time. Students, accompanied by WMU sociology professor, Aaron Kinzel, walked the same corridors, visited the same cells and passed the same gun towers as some of the most hardened criminals in Michigan's history.
Kinzel's pedagogy has intentionally been hands-on because he is determined to give his students real-life experience. Recognizing that most students are naive when it comes to the prison experience—and rightly so—Kinzel sought out ways to give them more than lessons from a textbook. Kinzel wanted, "students to sit in that space, in a cell, and experience how horrific the conditions are. I wanted to shock them." Clare Tell, a sociology student from Ann Arbor, Mich., thought she was familiar with what goes on in a prison, but had an emotional reaction during the visit. In particular, a notepad where former prisoners and corrections officers shared their memories left an impression. Tell said, "I read every line and almost cried. It was emotional. I can't stop thinking about the notes." One former inmate stated he stayed in that very cell for 20 years and that hit Tell particularly hard. "It made me sad. I had kind of an idea of what it would be like, but standing there, it was so vivid and so real."
She also recalled the showers as a pivotal moment of the visit. "The showers are not even a foot apart. They stood next to someone they didn't know, next to someone who committed crimes they had no idea about and had to shower next to them."
Kinzel arranged this visit not only to give his students a realistic view of the corrections system, but also to help students understand how choices and circumstances can lead people in certain directions. "I get what it's like to grow up in a life of crime and poverty. That can shape your decisions." Kinzel's willingness to open up about his personal history and determination to humanize those in the corrections system is why students like Tell consider him to be such an influential professor. "I appreciate him because he teaches outside of the book. He tells the truth and doesn't leave anything out to spare feelings," said Tell. While she isn't sure what she wants to do professionally, because of Kinzel's influence Tell wants to help those in prison. She added, "I want to help. I can't think of them rotting in prison in sub-par conditions."
This fall Kinzel is taking another group of students to the Cell Block 7 Museum. Students with interest in sociology and criminal justice are welcome to attend and may contact Kinzel to be included on any correspondence. When asked why he is offering another group of students this same opportunity, he stated that this type of experience "is a good place to start if you are interested in criminal justice. It is a good place to get exposed to it."