McDaniel students get brief glimpses at life behind bars

They've stepped into a gas chamber. They've talked to a baby-faced inmate who could have been their classmate. And they've walked through cell blocks and dormitories where prisoners sleep day-in, day-out.

In the past two weeks, 22 students at McDaniel College have gotten a glimpse of life behind bars through tours of four correctional facilities in the Baltimore area.


While other students learned to play mah-jongg and discussed fantasy novels, these students saw firsthand how the state's prison system works in "Correctional Facilities: Fact & Fiction," one of the many courses offered during the college's three-week January term. The term ends Friday.

What the students observed during the short academic stint is that prison life isn't exactly like Oz, the often-violent fictional institution featured on the former HBO show. But it isn't pretty, either.


"I've learned to appreciate my freedom," said David Wigtil, 21, a junior majoring in sociology. "My whole life, I've been free and not sitting there like a caged animal."

Added sophomore Jimmy Dahlgren: "I wanted to see what it was like in a prison. The most surprising thing was the number of prisoners - one place was overcrowded."

Offered for the fifth year, the class is taught by Andy Stritch, a 34-year correctional veteran who is a transition coordinator and a public information officer for the Metropolitan Transition Center, formerly known as the Maryland Penitentiary, in Baltimore.

Instead of relying solely on books and other media to discuss topics such as gangs, drugs in prison and work release programs, Stritch exposed his students to an inmate's reality of being locked up - or at least a small sense of it.

"I found that they have an incorrect conception [of jails and prisons] because of exposure from the media," Stritch said. "Seeing the inmates living in cells, packed together, it's a real shock for them. Small little spaces for two men. ... College dorms are a lot different.

"Inmates holler at them, make funny faces at them," he added. "It's an interesting experience to have 600 eyes looking at you, from all different directions."

Besides a tour of the Metropolitan Transition Center, the students visited a juvenile detention center, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill, and one of the state's "pre-release" facilities, the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp in Jessup.

By the time the class arrived at the nondescript Howard County Detention Center in Jessup for its final field trip Jan. 14, the students said they had seen it all.


"It doesn't scare me because all the people who work here are trained and professionals," said Matt Rinehimer, 20, a sophomore who is interested in a career in corrections.

Inside the 361-bed detention center, deputy director Jack Kavanagh led the students through a metal detector and several steel-bar doors to the facility's various wings.

One stop was at a dormitory-style housing unit where several work-release inmates were snoozing while others were getting ready for the day.

"They get a few more privileges," Kavanagh said, noting the television and vending machines in the unit.

Throughout the one-hour tour, the group closely followed Kavanagh, who explained the center's security and various procedures for monitoring inmates. Each door is monitored by a video camera.

"Are the correction officers allowed to have guns?" asked Beth Appleton, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in social work and sociology.


"No, the best weapon is up here," Kavanagh said pointing to the top of his head. "The name of the game is prevention."

Several students said they signed up for the class because they are interested in a career in law enforcement or in the correctional system.

Appleton said the course was an eye-opening experience.

"I like that it's dangerous and that you're helping them to transition into a normal environment," said Appleton, who wants to be a social worker in a correctional facility.