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University of Dayton criminal justice studies course goes live with inmates serving sentences on death row

By Allison Brace '22

University of Dayton students in this spring’s Introduction to Criminal Justice course are learning first-hand about life on death row by speaking directly with inmates featured in the book Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row by author Tessie Castillo.

Martha Hurley, professor and director of the Criminal Justice Studies program, partnered with Castillo to integrate this live component into her course. Although this was the pilot semester for the live discussions with inmates, it has been successful in the eyes of students.

“It has been really cool to hear all of their personal testimonies and their day-to-day life on death row,” said Morgan Ramsey, a first-year psychology major from Kansas City, Kansas.

Castillo coordinated with four inmates from different backgrounds, races and reasons for incarceration to speak to students by phone. They were able to use their designated telephone time to call into the class’ Zoom sessions. Inmates were able to speak to the class in 15-minute increments before being required to hang up and call back again. The prison allowed them to call up to three times for a total of 45 minutes of conversation with the students.

“They are all really motivated by writing for Crimson Letters and telling their stories,” said Emma Davies, an undecided first-year student from Fairfield, Connecticut. “They said it makes their lives so much better, which was really interesting to hear that under all the circumstances they have to go through that just sharing their stories with other people made such a difference in their life.”

During the live sessions students were encouraged to ask the inmates questions. Inmates were limited as to what they could share regarding their crimes and punishment, but they were able to talk about their lives in prison.

“Being exposed to the environment directly was really special because you obviously read and hear about what happens on death row, but I think it is a totally different experience hearing from them directly,” Davies said.

Students had the opportunity to learn not only about the day-to-day life of the prisoners, but also about the steps they took to share their voices in Crimson Letters, which students read as part of their coursework. Published in 2020, the text combines 30 essays authored in the prisoners’ own words.

Castillo met the inmates who participated in the book through a writing class she taught at the prison. Prison officials expressed concerns about liability issues related to the book and limited her interactions to one prisoner at a time. In addition, the prison mail system was slow, making it difficult for Castillo to communicate about revisions to the text. The participating inmates also had little to no incentive for participating in the writing process.

“Their participation was entirely driven by their own desire for their well-being and the sake of spreading the word,” Ramsey said.

Many of the inmates featured in Crimson Letters developed a passion for writing and advocating for changes in America’s criminal justice system. Some are currently fighting for policy changes from inside the prison walls.

Many have also devoted their life to their respective religions. One inmate converted to Catholicism, which he shared with the class. Others have been able to devote their time to taking college courses and even obtaining bachelor's degrees.

“As a result of these conversations, I think students came to understand more about human dignity, dying behind prison walls, and justice than they would have in a typical class,” Hurley said. “I also think students came to recognize the common humanity among a group often perceived as less human.”

Upon publication of Crimson Letters, Castillo and inmates spoke to people in nursing homes and other group settings to advertise the book and make the prisoners’ voices heard. Although the University of Dayton course is not their first classroom setting, it is the first such experiential learning opportunity at UD. This opportunity was made available through the College’s Experiential Learning Innovation Fund Faculty Grant, which supports the implementation of creative, high-impact curricular experiences in University courses.

The course utilizes a blended format that incorporates reflection on conversations with the inmates and criminal justice research. Students complete a reflection after talking with each inmate, allowing them to think more deeply about their conversations. For their final project, students are working on a research paper that includes topics from the course, as well as what they learned from their direct conversations with inmates.

Davies is doing her research on the topic of wrongful convictions after hearing from one of the inmates, who maintains his innocence and is currently fighting for his exoneration.

“This was definitely the most interesting class that I have taken thus far, because it is so pertinent to the real world,” Davies said. “The death penalty is so relevant to today’s society and conversations, so I thought that was really interesting to get a deeper understanding of that and what goes on within the prison system. It definitely changed a lot of perspectives that I had prior to taking the class.”

For more information, visit the Criminal Justice Studies program’s website.

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