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Missouri prison staff head citizen awareness program.

Of the problems confronting corrections, perhaps none is more critical than the public's lack of understanding of contemporary prison operations. Although the public considers crime one of today's most pressing social concerns, the realities of prison operations remain unfamiliar for the vast majority of citizens.

Staff at Missouri's Moberly Correctional Center, recognizing the importance of promoting positive public relations, have established an innovative program to educate citizens about corrections. The program, which was initiated by line staff, is accomplishing its goals of informing Missouri citizens about the realities of prison operations.

The PLEA Program

Moberly is a 29-year-old facility for male offenders in rural North-central Missouri. It is a high-medium security institution with an average daily population of about 1,465.

In 1990, members of a local high school psychology club contacted Moberly and expressed an interest in learning about inmates, staff and prison operations. Three members of the prison's program staff - an institutional parole officer and two caseworkers - were asked to speak to the students. The students' response to the presentation was positive, and the staff decided it would be a good idea to develop a program to meet the needs of others interested in learning about corrections. Accordingly, they approached prison administrators with a proposal to set up a public education program. With administrators' endorsement, they developed the Prison Life Education Awareness (PLEA) program.

Through PLEA, staff offer interested citizens a true-to-life examination of prison operations in Missouri. They have spoken with a variety of groups - including high school, college and university students; Rotary Clubs; religious groups; employees in the criminal justice system and other public agencies; juvenile offenders and their families; and many other social and professional organizations.

Most publicity for the program has been word-of-mouth. At the program's start, staff sent letters and made follow-up calls to local high schools, colleges and universities to inform them about PLEA. In many cases students who were impressed by the program told their parents, who, in turn, scheduled presentations for other groups.

In setting up the curriculum for PLEA, the coordinators agreed they wanted to expose citizens to both staff and inmate perspectives. With this in mind, they designed the program so that participants visiting the prison would hear presentations from both PLEA coordinators and an inmate panel.

The Presentation

A typical program lasts about two hours. Staff begin with an overview of Moberly and other Missouri prisons and then cover topics such as incarceration costs, the roles and responsibilities of correctional employees, custody levels and classification, and inmate programs. In addition, they also lead discussions about general criminal activity, alcohol and substance abuse, gang activity, and the inmate subculture. In cases where groups request information on specific topics, staff presentations are more detailed and focused.

To complement discussions, PLEA staff put together an exhibit of prison items such as inmate-made weapons, contraband and inmate artwork. Participants find this visual display especially appealing.

Inmate volunteers are carefully selected for the program. They are fairly representative of the inmate population in terms of race/ethnicity, offense history, sentence length and other characteristics. They must meet specific criteria, including good disciplinary records and willingness to follow instructions from program coordinators. Perhaps most important, inmates must be willing to discuss their cases. Because attendees often ask pointed questions, the inmates must have accepted responsibility for their crimes and must be comfortable talking about them.

Before being permitted to participate in presentations, inmates undergo training in which they learn about the program's format and their role in it. Staff advise them to be as honest as possible and not to use inappropriate language. Given the realities of prison life, inmates are told there is no need to exaggerate when discussing prison conditions. Before participating in an actual presentation, inmates usually sit in on a couple of sessions.

The inmates are courteous yet candid when they speak to groups about prison life. They offer participants information about their personal histories, the effects of incarceration on themselves and their families, the manipulative games inmates often play, the daily routine at Moberly, and their perceptions of the criminal justice system.

Because interested citizens sometimes are unable to travel to the prison, PLEA coordinators also travel throughout the state to speak to educational and civic groups. Inmates do not participate in these presentations.

The Benefits of PLEA

PLEA is designed to benefit three groups: the general public, correctional employees and inmates. In its first few years, the program has been presented to about 2,000 citizens. It offers these individuals not only basic information about the Moberly facility, but also a deeper understanding of the tremendous work accomplished by correctional workers and the enormous challenges facing the correctional system. In addition, it gives them a better appreciation of what it is like to be an inmate.

The program also is important for staff. Those involved in PLEA are forced to improve their communication and organizational skills. They also gain an appreciation for the complexities faced by correctional administrators - establishing and maintaining a successful program requires persistence and hard work. And as correctional spokespersons, PLEA staff learn they have an important obligation to provide information as objectively and professionally as possible. In addition, the program benefits all staff by informing the community about their work.

Finally, PLEA has positive ramifications for inmates. Inmates involved in the program have to improve their communication skills and have the opportunity to present their point of view to people who otherwise might never be exposed to their perspective.

There are, of course, limits to the amount of information that can be presented in a single session of PLEA. But citizens who attend the program acquire a wealth of information they otherwise may not have received. Community response has been exceptional - many attendees have written to laud the program, including one college professor who wrote, "All of us can benefit from taking the time to learn about this little understood part of society. The PLEA program gave us this opportunity."

The program's costs are minimal - there are some minor postal and telephone expenses and occasional travel expenses. Staff developed the materials on their own time and during regular working hours. Since the PLEA coordinators are not security officers, they have been able to present the program during the workday without posing shift staffing problems.

PLEA is a grass-roots effort of prison employees who believe that education is an important vehicle for prison improvement. If every prison in the United States could reach the community in a similar fashion, perhaps corrections professionals would receive the respect and understanding needed to face today's challenges.

Richard Sluder is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Central Missouri State University. William Buck, an institutional parole officer at Moberly Correctional Center, and Dean Minor, a caseworker, grievance officer and litigation coordinator at Moberly, originated the idea for PLEA and contributed to this article. The Center also would like to recognize the efforts of the third staff member who originated the program, Robin Webb, who died in November 1992. For more information about the PLEA program, contact Buck or Minor at 816) 263-3778.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Sluder, Richard
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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