U of I students spend spring break working with NICI inmates

'...we’re absolutely happy to be here'

University of Idaho students and NICI staff take a moment for a selfie during their weeklong experience at the Cottonwood correctional facility.

University of Idaho students and NICI staff take a moment for a selfie during their weeklong experience at the Cottonwood correctional facility.

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— Working with convicted felons on improving basic living and vocational skills and preparing them for employment may not be how many young people would want to spend their spring break.

But nine University of Idaho students chose to do so earlier last month at North Idaho Correctional Institution at Cottonwood.

“We paid to come here, and we’re absolutely happy to be here,” said U of I senior Miranda Carter, who participated in the university’s Alternative Service Break (ASB) program.

Run by U of I’s Department of Student Involvement and Center for Volunteerism and Social Action, ASB promotes student learning and development through hands-on service opportunities. The group consists of 11 teams, with 59 total students (each paying $150) and seven faculty and staff advisors, who served at seven locations in three different states: Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

During March 14-18, NICI was one of three Idaho ASB locations, along with homeless ministries in Boise and a Twin Falls refugee center. At Cottonwood, students, working with a faculty member, used their backgrounds and academic training to assist inmates who are preparing to re-enter society. They assisted in such areas as career-planning interviews, money management workshops and building relationship skills.

A journalism major, Carter taught inmates several classes during the week, such as on propaganda and media awareness, and creative writing. On this last class, she worked with inmates on taking apart personal essays they had created to look at individual experiences and events, “and why they are important,” she said, “and to help them identify the root of what they were doing that got them here and why they were doing it.”

The experience was new for inmates who are used to occasional visitors – perhaps for a few hours or a day or two – but in these students’ case they continued to stick around day after day at NICI: a novelty for these offenders who were “absolutely shocked,” Carter said, that students paid to work with them for the week. “They ask you, ‘Couldn’t you think of anything better?’ They were so surprised.”

One guy said, ‘Why are you so interested in us?’” she continued, a statement that spoke to the feelings of neglect these offenders operate under; many have a gang-affiliated background and the false sense of community enforced under those criminal hierarchies.

Students participating in ASB chose this to provide further insight into their chosen majors – such as sociology and criminology — and future careers, according to Carter. For her, it was an opportunity to learn from and listen to people who – for many – have had little interest paid to them throughout their lives, and not only receive that insight but relate to them on a personal level, and in so doing have better understanding of what kind of people make up the incarceration system. In turn, students were hoping to contribute to inmates understanding of both themselves and to re-entering the workforce, and overall, “of what they’re returning to.”

For NICI education program manager Bill Farmer, the weeklong experience was mutually beneficial. Besides life skills and workforce training, inmates also learned people do care about them. Students received insight into the corrections system through these personal interactions, and they also put their academic training into practical application. As well, many of these students in their professional careers will come into contact with the corrections system, and the experience gained here will better help their interactions with it.

“These kids are amazing,” he said, “and they’ll be amazing when they have their own careers.”

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