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Learning by living: student internships.

Oh no! Not another student intern! Jails, prisons and probation/parole offices see them coming every semester - corrections majors. As part of their curriculum, these students spend part of their school year discovering firsthand what it's like to work in the field. This can be a valuable experience for students, especially if the agencies involved take the time to establish a relationship with them, answer their questions, and help them adjust to their new environment.

As a student, I had the opportunity to intern at a maximum security male prison, a small direct supervision jail, a district court probation office and a department of corrections probation/parole office. These experiences allowed me to explore various areas of corrections, and I learned many lessons that I could not have learned in a classroom.

The first day of an internship is overwhelming for the student. I remember thinking that I had not learned anything in three years of college. It was not until many hours later that things began to fall into place.

The person in charge of a facility's internship program, the intern supervisor, is the one who should help the student adjust. The first day is the most time consuming, filling out paperwork, obtaining ID cards, and covering the policies and procedures that will affect the intern. Scheduling is a major concern. Keeping in mind that the student may have other obligations, the supervisor should be flexible when scheduling the student's hours. What is expected of the intern, including the dress code and other basic information, should be covered on the first day. Typically, this information can be extensive, so it's helpful to provide it in writing as well.

The intern supervisor should take time to get to know each student as an individual, because each student will have a different level of experience. When I interned at the direct supervision jail, I was issued a corrections uniform and a "visitor" ID badge. I was the jail's first corrections intern, and I was allowed to walk inside the facility unescorted. Because I had experience as a uniformed police reserve officer, I had a basic idea of how to avoid certain situations, including how to handle confrontations with inmates, especially in areas not monitored by cameras. Unfortunately, a student without any experience would be a serious liability if dressed in a uniform and sent inside a jail. By getting to know the student, the supervisor can better design the appropriate internship program.

Although the basic program should be the same for every student, it needs to be matched with each student's abilities. For example, each student should get the chance to work on a presentence report while interning at the probation office. Some students may learn more quickly and, therefore, have the opportunity to work on several. I have completed presentence reports and background investigations, taken client reports, conducted interviews and performed a bail investigation, all during an internship.

Orientation should include a tour of the facility or office, introductions to those with whom the student will be working, and - most important - situational exercises. Corrections is not a predictable field, and students must be taught how to react in certain scenarios. For example, suppose an inmate sees a student and exposes himself while yelling obscenities. What should the student do? What if an intern is at a bar and runs into a parolee? During my internship at the probation and parole offices, I worked as a clerk in a grocery store, where I sometimes would wait on clients from the office. I chose to quit because it made me very uncomfortable.

Some inmates may try to establish a close relationship with a student. Keep in mind that many clients are not shy and will ask questions ranging from, "What are you doing here?" to "Where do you live?" to "Are you gay?" Students should be briefed on how to answer these types of questions so they do not give an inappropriate answer. The best advice I ever got was to just be polite. I learned how to politely tell an inmate what he asked was none of his business. Interacting with offenders is something that can be learned only through an internship, and addressing potential problems can prevent them from occurring.

Another area interns should be aware of is confidentiality. Students should be told from day one that what is heard or seen at the facility or office stays there. Information contained in offenders' files is educational; it also serves as a reminder to interns of why the offender is there in the first place. Often, I would spend time talking with an inmate, and then I would read his files only to discover that this inmate, who had seemed so polite while talking with me, had raped a child. As one correctional officer told me, "These guys would rape you and kill your parents without a second thought if they had the chance." Learning not to trust clients even though they are acting like angels is something you don't learn from a book. If I hadn't been given access to these files I think my learning experience would have been hampered.

No article on internships would be complete without discussing liability. In some cases, students are denied access to certain areas. For example, while accompanying parole agents on home visits, students may be asked to wait in the car. Parolees potentially could become violent for some reason, or an agent may need to confront a client about an issue that is especially sensitive. if a student is denied access to a certain area or participation in an activity, explain the situation and make sure the student is informed of what has happened and why.

Sometimes it's impossible to avoid situations in which an intern sees or hears something inappropriate. During my internship at the jail, a male correctional officer made some inappropriate comments about me to a group of inmates. I did not report it, although looking back, I know I should have. Internship programs should emphasize as a key issue that any incidents such as this should and must be reported. It could save the facility or agency from being sued later.

Remaining aware of a student's activities throughout the internship is the responsibility of the intern supervisor. At least twice a month, the intern supervisor should meet with the student to discuss what is being learned and whether the student has any concerns. The supervisor may need to change assignments or reschedule hours. An intern should not just take up space. I did that for one of my internships. Week after week, I had the same assignments. A program that is flexible can accommodate a variety of interests.

When a student has accumulated enough hours to complete the internship, he or she sits down with the intern supervisor for an exit interview. At this time, the supervisor and intern talk about what the intern has learned and discuss any incidents that may have occurred. Evaluations of the intern by the people he or she worked with also are shared with the intern at this meeting. The student should offer suggestions regarding how the program can be improved, and the supervisor should be open to these ideas. Without exit interviews, the supervisor will have no concept of the program's effectiveness.

Student internship programs require a lot of time and effort, but they are not without benefits. If students who enjoyed their internships apply later for positions at the facility or agency, the potential employer will have less guesswork in deciding whether this person will work out. Finally, interns get a chance to contribute to the corrections profession. More and more, people are realizing that corrections personnel are a far cry from their predecessors, mainly because more education is required. Part of this education is an internship, and, with time and planning, it can be a painless and rewarding experience for both the student and the agency involved.

Jill L. Schaefer is a 1995 graduate of Lake Superior State University in Michigan, where she majored in corrections.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Annual Security Issue and Buyer's Guide July 1996
Author:Schaefer, Jill L.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Words:1347
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