Background checks, book drives and chances to talk to death row inmates are some of the things students can expect to experience in Dawn Cecil’s “Life in the Big House” special topics class.
An elective available to all majors, the class focuses on the reality of life behind bars. Students study prison culture, its history, and the psychological effects prison life has on inmates. Reading, lectures, note-taking, and videos give students a relatively good view of what prison is like, but Cecil, program director and associate professor of criminology, believes that seeing it first-hand gives students a far better understanding.
Cecil’s class recently took a field trip to Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla. Before students go, they keep a journal and are prepped for what to expect at the prison. Students cannot bring any belongings inside, and are given a list of rules on how to dress, act and speak.
On the tours, students get a chance to walk down death row where inmates facing the death penalty stay. On last year’s trip to the Florida State Prison, a maximum-security prison in Stark, Fla., some got the chance to speak to some of the inmates. Cecil was shocked to see students’ enthusiasm for seeing the room where executions are done, she said, and some students had the courage to sit in the unplugged electric chair.
By taking these trips, students get to see and experience what they have been reading about in class. It removes the filter of learning from books and gives students a connection to what really happens inside prison walls, she said.
“Unless you go, you don’t know what it’s really like,” Cecil said. “It’s not like what you see on TV.”
Students in the class have also been holding book drives to collect reading materials to send to prisons in Florida. With prison library funds being cut, many are in need of books to give the inmates.
Cecil’s students left boxes outside of her office and the Tavern from March 5 through March 23. Any genre of book could be donated, but there were guidelines—no sexual content, heavy violence, weapons or gang-related topics. This year, over 1,000 books were donated. The books collected are going to be given to the Lowell Correctional Institution and the Florida State Prison.
On April 19, Cecil’s students are taking a second trip to the Florida State Prison. The students will again get a chance to see and experience death row, and possibly have a chance to speak with some inmates. Even though the book drive ended March 23, Cecil encourages students to continue bringing books by her office in Davis 284. The books donated will be taken with the class on their next tour.