SRU students conduct ‘Learning Dialogues’ with SCI Mercer inmates


students at Slippery Rock University are taking that real-world approach a step further: they’re meeting with inmates.

From left, Kathy Kocherzat, licensed psychologist manager at SCI Mercer, and Yvonne Eaton-Stull, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of public health and social work, meet with SRU students from Eaton-Stull’s Forensic Social Work class at SCI Mercer before the students enter the prison to conduct learning dialogues with inmates.

Nov. 13, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — It's common for college students to hear a lecture from a professional in the legal system or tour a correctional facility as part of a criminal justice class. But students at Slippery Rock University are taking that real-world approach a step further: they're meeting with inmates.

Led by Yvonne Eaton-Stull, assistant professor of public health and social work, three groups of students from her Forensic Social Work course are partnering with psychologists from the State Correctional Institution in Mercer for a unique participatory learning experience. Both students and inmates meet in the prison for a project that organizers have dubbed "Learning Dialogues."

"This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to come up with questions for prisoners and ask for their recommendations," Eaton-Stull said. "It's a valuable experience for our students, because they may have preconceived notions about how they could or should relate to inmates and it's enlightening to see it become this moving experience. "

"Before (visiting the inmates) I had my biases about going into a prison and how it would be a bad place," said Janel Jones, a junior dual criminology and criminal justice and social work major from Pittsburgh. "But when you go in and talk to the inmates you understand that they are human beings who just need help."

Eighteen students, in three groups of six, each took turns visiting with inmates at SCI-Mercer during the fall semester, addressing topics affecting the inmates such as substance abuse, mental health and reentry/recidivism.

The Forensic Social Work course applies social work principles to various aspects of the legal system, such as legal rights, policies and practices in various forensic settings. Eaton-Stull previously partnered with SCI Mercer, taking students and dogs into the prison to conduct animal-assisted intervention sessions to treat inmates' stress and anxiety as part of a research study.

As part of Learning Dialogues, students select one of three topics they would like to address and then prepare 10 questions that are approved by SCI Mercer psychologists, who work with prison staff to select inmates who would be appropriate to participate. When the six students visit, they meet for 90 minutes in a group that includes six inmates, a psychologist and Eaton-Stull, in alternating seating arranged in a circle.

"As a psychologist, I'm thrilled when I see positive relationships, learning and good communication, and that's what I see here," said Kathy Kocherzat, licensed psychologist manager at SCI Mercer. "We're putting (SRU students who are) future leaders in contact with what can be castaways of society and making them think more deeply about the impact of laws and relevant topics for dialogue in a safe environment. It's beneficial to everyone."

There are five licensed psychologists among the 440 employees at SCI Mercer to meet the needs of nearly 1,500 inmates.

"I learned that mental health workers are underrepresented in prisons," said Jones, who was part of the session that addressed mental health. "I want to focus in that area (in my career) and understand what the inmates feel about mental health issues and what programs could be implemented. Once the inmates understand (how to treat their conditions), they'll be able to make connections and get more support."

Angela Kenbok, a senior social work major from Pittsburgh, was particularly moved by the experience because of her background working last year as a part-time counselor at an inpatient drug and alcohol facility.

"I get a lot of clients where I work that come straight from jail; it's an ongoing cycle," Kenbok said. "My job is to give them hope to stay clean, but they have all that time in the prisons without updated literature and/or a steady program. There's not enough recovery tools in the prison -- that's just not the prison system's focus. To be able to better understand what they are going through on the criminal side before they get treatment really helps you understand the whole role of social work."

Kenbok, who was in the group that addressed substance abuse, asked questions related to how drug addiction is linked to their criminal activity and how regularly inmates have access to resources like 12-step programs, Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings and maintenance or harm-reducing medications. After learning about the needs, Kenbok became more motivated to work in a prison setting, even saying that she wishes the sessions would last longer than 90 minutes.

"I never in a million years would've thought that I would have an interest in working with inmates, but when I went there and got to interact one-on-one it changed my whole perspective," Kenbok said. "(I want to be) someone to advocate for people on the inside and give them an opportunity to learn more about themselves and give them hope for when they get out, (so that) they won't keep committing the same crimes."

Kocherzat, who has been a psychologist for nearly 25 years and previously worked at a prison in Pittsburgh, said that general feedback from the SRU students will be shared with her staff, which could lead to changes, but for now the mutual benefit of the partnership is in the process of learning and dialogue.

"This is unique to see coming from Pittsburgh to Mercer," Kocherzat said. "It's beautiful and a really great idea. We'll see if we can keep it going. It's a win-win on all sides."

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