COTTONWOOD — Spring break last month saw seven students from the University of Idaho working with inmates and staff at North Idaho Correctional Institution in Cottonwood.

This is an annual spring program as part of the university’s Alternative Service Break (ASB) program, run by the U of I Department of Student Involvement and Center for Volunteerism and Social Action. ASB promotes student learning and development through hands-on service opportunities, and puts student teams at different locations both in and out of Idaho.

One of two team leaders for the NICI group was Alyssa Baugh, a fourth-year student majoring in microbiology and biochemistry. She graduates this May with plans to attend graduate school this fall at the University of Georgia toward her PhD in microbiology.

This is Baugh’s fourth ASB experience, her third trip to Cottonwood and her second as leading the team at NICI. The Free Press interviewed her by e-mail on the experience.

Baugh explained the ASB program requires orientation prior to all service trips, “as a way of informing students about social justice issues surrounding the trip, and a way of helping prepare students for what are often emotionally difficult journeys.”

“I’ve found that the trip to Cottonwood can be hard for the students; there’s a lot of intimidation and fear, and we want everyone to understand the risks associated with serving in a correctional facility,” Baugh said. “So as a leader, I put a lot of value on meeting beforehand to manage everyone’s expectations.”

For the week of March 12-16, students served at the prison from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with two of those days extending into the evening for extracurricular events including a knowledge bowl and volleyball competition.

“We spent most of our time working in the school in the prison,” Baugh said, “where offenders were taking classes on math and English to earn their GEDs, on parenting to become better fathers when they leave the system, and on creative writing to learn healthy ways to express their emotions. Personally, I spent most of my time in the math classroom, because I’ve tutored STEM before and that was where I felt my experience was the most useful.”

“That’s one of the big reasons I enjoyed leading this trip,” she continued. “All our participants bring such different skills to the table, and NICI lets us get involved in projects that we’re interested in and capable of.”

Students were involved in different areas: Some taught English, helped in the NICI high school program, organized volleyball games, and one who is majoring in criminology shadowed prison staff to get a better idea of her future job options. One of these students was heavily involved in high school agriculture associations, and he helped NICI staff create a course to help inmates find jobs in the farming industry following their release.

Projects students worked on together included in organizing and running the inmate knowledge bowl, which they helped start last year, interviewing inmates as part of their pre-release requirements so they’d be prepared to interview for a job, and running a seminar for inmates who want to know more about attending college.

“I guess I’m always surprised by how positive our reception is,” Baugh said. “For a lot of the inmates, people with nonviolent crimes who are unlikely to reoffend, this is the low point in their lives. If I was them, I’m not sure how comfortable or welcoming I would be to volunteers coming in, especially because many were so used to being judged. But we always felt very respected, very appreciated, and many went out of their way to tell us that seeing us made them feel ‘normal,’ as much as anyone can in that environment. There were definitely inmates who felt uncomfortable having us there, and we respected that and tried our best to eliminate the “savior mentality” of service by privileged groups and ends up leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. But the majority of the inmates I talked to had really positive impressions of the experience, and of the energy that just kind of took over.”

“The biggest thing I’ve observed on each of the three trips is that there comes a moment in the week during nightly reflections where we’re sitting in a circle and someone confesses that a prisoner they had worked with and talked to told them about their crime and that it changed the way they saw them,” Baugh said. “I think that’s why this is such a hard and powerful trip. It kind of forces participants to stop seeing things in black and white: as either ‘a good person who I like’ and ‘a bad person who did something really terrible.’”

“A lot of it came down to showing the staff their work is respected, appreciated, and valued, and showing the inmates that there are still people who want to support them in their recovery and reintegration,” Baugh said. “One of the men I talked to told me that he had been receiving letters from people at his former church, and that it embarrassed him for them to see him that way. He commented that he would have to change churches when he got out, and it broke my heart that someone could feel so isolated by their own fears that they would turn away from a system of support. I hope we helped show at least one person that they can do a bad thing without being a bad person or being seen as not ‘friend-worthy.’”

“Personally, the experience - every ASB experience, really, and especially those to Cottonwood - has been absolutely transformative. I stepped past the chain-link fence to enter NICI two years ago knowing nothing more about the penal system than I would from watching Orange is the New Black, and when I left for the last time this year I felt so incredibly different. Something just changes in you when you get to meet people who have made these terrible choices, but who are now suffering the consequences and recognize that there are changes that need to be made in their lives. It’s hard to see them as the villains that they’re often painted as, instead of just people.”

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