Every year, thousands of individuals are released from prisons in the United States. These individuals face many challenges, including finding stable living conditions when they cannot stay with family or gaining employment that affords them a living wage.

Charles Bell, professor of the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences (CJS) at Illinois State University designed a virtual mass incarceration panel to help students and researchers understand how factors like poverty, poor education, and community violence can adversely affect formerly incarcerated individuals. This panel included individuals who had navigated the carceral settings and were willing to share their lived experiences to help students gain an in-depth understanding of course concepts.

“Each of the panelists is currently employed within the criminal justice system in a novel manner,” Bell said.

Experiences leading up to incarceration

Members of the panel shared various reasons for incarceration. Bell selected each panelist because of their unique experiences leading up to incarceration and how they navigated post-incarceration challenges. Although there were unique factors were reported, the type of household in which the individuals were raised was a common factor.

“This factor stood out to me the most because I am a single mother raising my 10-year-old son,” Lashanti Brown said. “Hearing the three men discuss this issue made me realize that some of the issues these individuals battle are very similar to the issues that non-felons such as myself struggle with. These individuals are no different than a person who has never been convicted and imprisoned for a crime.”

Other factors reported by the interviewees included being introduced to drugs at a young age, growing up in high-crime communities, and frequent suspension from school.

Life after prison

Students learned more about the challenges of life after incarceration and the difficulties faced when formerly incarcerated individuals are attempting to reintegrate themselves into society. Pina Raquel said,

“Being forced into solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments one can experience, and has often times created PTSD,” Pina Raquel said.

In relating her experience of the virtual class, Briana Gastaldello expressed her concern about the violent environment in prisons often overlooked by correctional officers and the extremely negative effects of solitary confinement as punishment.

“I have heard many heartbreaking stories about real people who have been failed by the criminal justice system,” she said. “One of the reasons I chose to respond to this inquiry was because I am tired of their stories being swept under the rug and ignored. I hope as many people hear about these issues as possible. I encourage anyone who has been interested in these brief summaries to look deeper into the issues. They are not glamorous or sexy, but they are very important.”

Beyond the textbook

All in all, students expressed how these sessions gave them opportunities to learn beyond the textbook.

“The virtual class discussion with formerly incarcerated individuals was a very eye-opening experience and I feel as if it should be implemented in other CJS courses as well,” Areanah Preston said. “I believe that through this experience, I was able to learn first-hand the problems that many of our incarcerated population goes through outside of the standard textbook curriculum.

Pina echoed Preston’s sentiments.

“Where I stand now as a senior I have not come across much information about the resources that are available to inmates that are released and attempting reintegrate themselves back into society, I was unaware of how severe the living conditions are inside prisons, nor did I know how much discrimination these individuals face after being incarcerated,” she said. “I strongly believe that students can benefit more by participating in panels like this versus reading repetitious information that is covered in CJS textbooks.”

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