Published: Dec. 21, 2012

Criminology students at CU-Boulder had the opportunity to find out what life is like on the other side of the bars when they toured the prison complex at Cañon City, Colorado.

Three tours held during the fall semester took 59 students to the Territorial Correctional Facility, Colorado State Penitentiary, and Arrowhead Correctional Center to learn about the criminal justice system, prison facilities, and inmates.

For prelaw senior Sarah Colburn, who wants to be a prosecuting attorney, the experience gave her a peek behind the curtain on what happens after someone is sentenced and what effect the prison system has on inmates.

“You go in thinking that if they’re in prison they must be really bad people,” she said. “Many are, but some of them came from poor life situations and had made mistakes. Does punishment help? What is the most effective rehabilitation other than just punishment? Knowing what sentencing works for different people would help me in the future when I’m a prosecutor deciding what sentence to ask the judge.”

The tours were arranged by Associate Professor Hillary Potter, who teaches criminology courses in the sociology program. She recently organized a new interdisciplinary student group called Criminology Buffs for students interested in pursuing a career in some facet of criminology or criminal justice, such as public safety, law, or crime scene investigation.

“The goal of the tours is for students to learn what they cannot learn from a textbook,” said Potter. “To see what they cannot see in a documentary video. Seeing with their own eyes teaches them much more than they can learn just in a classroom setting.”

On the tours, students saw cell blocks, the exercise yard, and the various prison work programs, which included training dogs and horses, making license plates and furniture, and agricultural work on the fish farms, dairies, and vineyards. They also had the opportunity to meet some of the inmates and hear what life in prison is like, their daily routines, and future plans.

Students also had the option of going into the execution chamber. Being in the room and seeing up close the gurney where inmates could be put to death by lethal injection was a powerful experience for the students.

“I tried to stay as far away from the gurney as possible,” said Colburn. “I’m anti-capital punishment and going in there underlines that reasoning for me.”

Regardless of whether students plan to pursue careers in criminal justice, Potter hopes the tours will open their eyes to a world they didn’t expect.

“The fact is, nearly all inmates are released back into society,” said Potter. “When students see the living conditions and the setup in prison and learn what rehabilitative programs are available for inmates to re-enter society, they will understand how we can better serve individuals who end up in prison, especially since they are going to be released into our society again.”