Students in prison


A day at Springhill Institution.

Eleven students in the Psychology and Forensic Psychology program set their alarms for 5am last Friday and made their way to the Springhill Institution, a medium security prison located in Springhill, Nova Scotia. Built in 1967, it holds up to 558 male inmates, with 378 inmates currently residing throughout the prison. The visit gave the students the opportunity to see the Regional Reception Centre; medium security housing units, including apartment-style pods; as well as the segregation unit.

These students are all in the Correctional Psychology course taught by StFX professor,  Dr. Margo Watt. Dr. Watt developed the course in 2001 which covers the history and mandate of corrections; the nature of offending behaviour; and assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation of different types of offenders. It has continued to grow over the past years, which inspired the development of the Forensic Psychology 2-year concentration.          

This was the first field trip of many for the semester and it acted as an opportunity for students to get practical experience outside of the classroom. Many students in the class are aspiring clinical psychologists, correctional officers, social workers and lawyers. Visiting prisons and having the opportunity to meet staff and inmates acts as a true test to the students to see whether or not this is the type of work they want to pursue.

It was a full day at the prison for the students, speaking with a variety of the workers about their role and the challenges that they have to face on a day-to-day basis. The most anticipated moment of the day was the sit down conversation the class had with an inmate who is considered a 'lifer'. He has already been incarcerated for half of his 30 years of life. He shared stories of his experience in prison and how the system has benefited him, as well as the struggles that it has caused him.

 Forensic Psychology student Jill MacLean described the experience as “eye opening” and explained “it brought out feelings of empathy, and lead to some thoughtful reflections about how we incarcerate individuals in Canada”. After the conversations with the inmate, program and correctional officers, and psychologists, many students describe the value in hearing all the different views on how a prison should operate and the very real challenges of managing such a large correctional system. Prior to visiting the prisons, students learned about the history and process of the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) in the classroom, and then undergo criminal record checks weeks in advance.

When asking Dr. Watt why she believes bringing students to the jail is beneficial rather than just teaching the information in class, she explains, “the public is intrigued with the criminal justice system - crimes, trials, lawyers, judges - but seems to lose interest once the offender has been sentenced. Many people know very little about our correctional system and often don't have the opportunity to visit correctional facilities”. Watt believes it is her duty, “as a Clinical Forensic Psychologist in an academic setting, to facilitate this opportunity for [her] students to get inside the walls of our prisons, jails, courts, and other settings where a large and vulnerable sector of our population reside”. She subscribes to Nelson Mandela's sentiment that "… no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails".

The experience of visiting the Springhill Institution provided the students with a greater understanding of the challenges faced by inmates and how the system helps to rehabilitate those who are given a chance to live again in the outside world.