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Punishment and Society Course Gives Villanova Students Hands-On Experience in the Criminal Justice System

More than 105 million people have seen an episode of Orange Is the New Black. The most-watched show on Netflix is based off a memoir by Piper Kerman entitled, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” Kerman spent a year at a minimum-security federal prison in Connecticut for money laundering. In the show, situated at a fictional women’s federal prison, the character portraying Kerman struggles to adjust to life in prison, as well as with her fellow inmates. Throughout the series, characters were exposed to the realities that exist within the prison system: privatization, funding, inequalities, corruption, discrimination, violence, racism, living conditions, safety and more.

Those themes are the focus of Dr. Jill McCorkel’s Punishment & Society course. Dr. McCorkel is Professor of Sociology and Criminology and the author of Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment, which examines the impact of the War on Drugs and punitive punishment philosophies on women’s prisons.

Jill McCorkel punishment and society

At the outset of the course, students go through a theoretical approach to punishment – why it happens, what it means for society and how types of punishment are a byproduct of politics, socioeconomics and history. In the second half of the semester, they analyze current prison practices, with an emphasis on the sociological and legal effects of mass incarceration. The topics they examine week to week include those seen in Orange Is the New Black, as well as life sentences, rehabilitation, re-entry to society and more.

Previously, students had the option of taking the course for service-learning credit where they tutored men preparing for the GED and college entrance exams at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Graterford. In 2018, Graterford was transitioning to a new facility, forcing McCorkel to come up with another option, realizing how valuable the hands-on experience was for her students.

McCorkel decided to give students the option to work on cases selected through word-of-mouth and requests for assistance from those incarcerated serving life or near-life terms. In Pennsylvania, a life sentence means there is no chance of parole, which prisoners often refer to it as “death by incarceration.” A 2018 report from the Abolitionist Law Center showed that Pennsylvania sentences more people to life in prison than any country in the world. At the time of the report, 5,300 prisoners were serving life sentences in the state.

This semester, students are examining cases of women incarcerated at SCI Muncy, one of only two prison facilities in the state that currently house female inmates. While incarceration rates for men have decreased since 2000, the rates for women have continued to increase.

Throughout the semester, students gather as much information as they can about the case, including media stories, legal filings and, if possible, correspond with the inmate and attorney. They map out the subject and the key facets of the case, detailing the crimes that were committed and the case against them. At the end of the semester, the groups present a final report that highlights problems with the case that could help the client, recommendations on the strength of the case and areas that the next team could further investigate. Some of the issues the student groups have discovered have suggested a wrongful conviction or a harsh and disparate sentence. Currently, students are working on commutation petitions and appellate issues, such as examining evidence handling, contradictory witness testimony and whether trial counsel was effective.

“Unfortunately, many incarcerated men and women do not have the resources to put together an appeal or commutation petition and that’s where universities can come into play,” McCorkel says. “This work is really impactful and important for my students because it gives them an opportunity to pursue possible career options in this area of advocacy work.”

In 2010, Cynthia Alvarado, who is incarcerated at SCI Muncy, was sentenced to life-without-parole, despite never committing or intending to commit a murder. In 2018, McCorkel’s class identified her case as one that should be looked at further. A separate senior seminar course, also taught by McCorkel, continued to examine the case, with their work resulting in a habeas petition being granted based on a wrongful jury instruction. This ruling vacated Alvarado’s conviction and sentence. The District Attorney’s Office of Philadelphia declined to appeal the ruling though they retain the option to retry the case.

The first-time cases offered to students featured men and women from Philadelphia. But the work on Alvarado’s case, which aligns with McCorkel’s research and expertise, prompted a shift this semester to focus on women.

Cierra-Zadiyah Mendez and Grace Smith are working on a case of a woman sentenced to life in prison in 1995, when she was only 18-years-old. Mendez, an English major, and Smith, an accounting major, are both criminology minors and have served as tutors at SCI Phoenix for inmates pursuing their GED.

“The class and having the chance to work on this case allows us to see these individuals as real people,” Mendez says. “Not knowing anything about the case, we might automatically assume they are bad people. This project gives us a chance to have an actual impact with someone’s case.”

Smith echoed that sentiment. “The project gives us an opportunity to apply what we’ve learned in class. As we dig deeper into our case and look to determine if a commutation is warranted, we’re challenged with an important question of how and if prison can change a person over 25 years, especially when they are incarcerated at 18 and they haven’t had a chance to develop.”

The course is just the beginning for many students, who often go on to law school or pursue careers in criminal justice.

“The transformation of the course is great example of a university-led model for criminal justice reform,” McCorkel says. “The students are knee-deep in these cases, looking to find ways to right the wrongs done to these individuals.”

McCorkel is currently working with both the Philadelphia DA’s office and Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman to identify wrongful convictions, as well as cases that are deserving of commutation, which will help to further develop this course.

“Captivating Courses” is a feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.