An Illinois State Honors class has spent the fall semester creating a resource guide for McLean County women who have recently been released from jail or prison.
The students highlighted their recommendations, big and small, during an hourlong presentation November 21 in Schroeder Hall attended by YWCA Labyrinth clients and staff and Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning Interim Director Harriett Steinbach. The project was completed on Labyrinth’s behalf as part of Criminal Justice Sciences Professor Dawn Beichner’s Honors course, CJS 102: Individuals, Society, and Justice.
The 27 students were split into nine groups. They researched mental health, career opportunities, healthy relationships and habits, and other topics relevant to Labyrinth’s clients, who are trying to reintegrate into society. The students’ work is being compiled into a resource guide that will be available to the organization’s clients and staff through a shared online drive.
Beichner said a strength of the class is that the students come from a variety of disciplines, including business, communication, computer science, education, and psychology.
“I love throwing a problem out to a group that doesn’t really think about things that criminal justice students think about,” Beichner said. “They don’t have boundaries. A lot of our mindsets, once we’re in a discipline, we think of things in a particular way and we know what solutions or reforms have been done. For these folks, the possibilities are endless.”
Most of the groups produced pamphlets outlining problems faced by incarcerated women, like increased rates of abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, while offering tips, resources, and services for dealing with those issues. One group even created an online module providing information about healthy relationships.
The students backed up their recommendations with research. A group that explored GED and community college opportunities for incarcerated women noted how education correlates with reduced rates of recidivism.
Another group presented research on healthy relationships and showed how pets, especially dogs, are great for bonding.
“They give you that love that everyone needs and deserves,” said Anthony Kozlowski, an exercise science major.
During her group’s presentation on overcoming addiction, Mikaila McCarthy talked about how someone close to her died of a drug overdose.
“I felt like in the relationship I was very much an enabler and I didn’t educate myself properly on how to help someone instead of hurting them in the long run,” McCarthy, a music major, said. “So I think really looking at these resources, it opened my eyes to say, ‘I was in these exact situations, and these are real-life situations that people are in.’ Once you have the knowledge and once these resources help you, it really brings some light into the situation.”
Beichner told the students how proud she was of what they accomplished. “Thank you so much for the work that you put into this, and we will make sure that our friends at Labyrinth have access to the resources. And know that your work is very well received. This group is incredibly thankful for your efforts.”
Beichner has been teaching the course for 17 years. In the past, her classes have completed projects for YWCA’s Stepping Stones sexual assault program and the McLean County Jail, and those related to environmental issues.
The course provides the students with an opportunity to develop a variety of skills and delve into problems they may have known little about before beginning their research.
“I hope that the students understand how critical each one of us is in affecting change,” Beichner said. “That’s one of the course themes is to look at the ways in which individuals can achieve justice. And so they learn through their own actions through a project like this exactly what way they’ll impact somebody’s life.
“I also think that it works to expose students to these community involvement, or engagements, so that they continue this on in their professional lives.”