‘Pen’itentiary: C of I students delve into incarceration through literature

Buzzzzzzz. The metal door opened and a crowd of College of Idaho students cascaded through the concrete-casted hallway into Cell Block A — maximum security.

“Can they see our faces?” one of the girls asked a sheriff’s deputy.

As part of the C of I Prison Experience class, students took a winter term field trip to the Canyon County Jail. Through the lenses of sociology and literature, the Prison Experience class delves into the U.S. prison system, which saw 7 million people behind bars, on probation or on parole in 2012, according to a U.S. Justice Department report.

“It’s an opportunity to learn about an issue of incarceration through the lens of prison literature,” said Professor Diane Raptosh, who has taught the class for the last 15 years. “We talk about the fact that the United States is the world leader in incarceration.”

Students read texts written by inmates, tour several local correctional institutions, and hear from guest speakers to get an intimate glimpse of prison life. One of this year’s speakers was Dr. Doran Larson, who edited the collection Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America. The book features more than 70 essays written by incarcerated Americans.

Raptosh wants her students to question national priorities and explore the notion of a surveillance society. And it seems she is doing just that.

“Overall in class, I’ve learned how many people we incarcerate that probably don’t need to be incarcerated,” said Nicole Bernard, a senior anthropology and sociology major. “One statistic that Doran Larson shared with us was that 50 percent of the prison population could be released without a significant rise in crime rates.”

Junior anthropology and sociology major Baylee Critchlow has always had a fascination with prison and the reasons people commit crimes, she said. The Prison Experience class allows her to delve into the prison system through the eyes of inmates, public defenders and everyone involved.                                                                                                                                                                  

The class also has unveiled to her that prisoners are more than shadows slinking behind bars—they’re people.

“That’s something that Raptosh really tries to push: that these are people who often are forgotten about,” Critchlow said.

Reality hit Kaden Pfeiffer when he realized how little he knew about the U.S. prison system. And some of the statistics shocked the sophomore accounting major.

“You hear the statistics about the recidivism rates and you go in to these facilities and they say they want to try and rehabilitate these people,” Pfeiffer said. “But I don’t thing enough is being done.”

While being in class can literally feel and even smell like a prison, the students don’t mind. In fact, they recommend it to anyone interested. Raptosh typically teaches the course every January during winter term, and she encourages anyone interested to contact her at [email protected].

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars and 14 Marshall, Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College’s beautiful, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit