Garnet Apple winner: Hayden Smith

Criminal justice professor gives students virtual prison experience

Take a criminal justice course with Hayden Smith, and at some point in the semester, you’ll probably find yourself behind bars, inside a 6-by-9-foot cell. You might also hear voices and see hallucinations, just like inmates diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The experiences are virtual, of course, presented through 360 videos Smith shoots in actual prisons to present realistic views of life inside correctional facilities.

“Most people haven’t been inside a prison, and so they tend to fill the void of experience with myths, misconceptions and things they’ve seen on TV,” says Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “I’m always surprised by how many students still talk about ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’”

That movie, based on a Stephen King short story, purports to depict life in the fictional Shawshank State Prison in Maine. But the film and most TV shows of that ilk don’t do justice to the concept of doing time in prison.

“I’ve done fieldwork in a lot of prisons, and even in prisons within prisons where I’ve had to wear a flak jacket and helmet to interview inmates on 23-hour-a-day lockdown,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to get into those places, so there’s no way I can take a class of 30 or 40 students in there. That’s why the videos are so important in giving students a view without Hollywood’s penchant for sensationalism.”

Smith conceived the idea for producing the videos as a safer and more practical alternative to student field trips after participating in a virtual instruction boot camp at the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence. The idea was then enhanced with suggestions from his fellow ambassadors at the Incubator of Teaching Innovation in the College of Arts and Sciences.

A lot of emotions come out of the experience, which is more effective for learning. If a student is not emotionally connected to the learning, they’re less likely to be engaged.

The videos range from the least immersive — perhaps a clip of someone interviewing a death row inmate — to very immersive, in which the camera’s point of view is from inside a cell.

“In a lot of media it’s always the observer looking in. You’re looking at a police car with a suspect inside or looking inside the cell. These videos allow the student to be inside the police car or inside the cell,” Smith says.

A course Smith often teaches, “Criminal Justice and Mental Health,” helps students better understand the challenges that correctional facilities face in treating inmates with mental illnesses. In some videos, he’s added delusional voices or the audio of manic, racing thoughts to the soundtrack, giving students a window into what it’s like to experience those symptoms while in a confined space.

In pre- and post-testing, Smith asks the students what they would change and not change about prison environments, and he says students typically become more empathic after experiencing the videos.

“A lot of emotions come out of the experience, which is more effective for learning. If a student is not emotionally connected to the learning, they’re less likely to be engaged,” he says. “And I’ve consistently found that students absolutely love these videos, though I should add that I always provide alternative assignments and trigger warnings in case anyone might feel traumatized by watching them. Students are in complete control of the virtual experience.”

Smith has conducted studies on the course using the videos to assess their effectiveness in student learning, particularly in terms of theory and policy solutions, and he has been pleased with the dynamic they bring to his lectures.

“I want to see them understand that these issues are complex, there is not necessarily one answer or a binary, true-false response,” he says. “I feel like I’m being effective if students view mental health occurring in corrections as a complex, complicated and challenging issue. It makes them think more critically instead of thinking of one solution that is based on media accounts.”

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