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Students' experiences volunteering at correctional facility spark idea for prison reform RSO


Grand Rapids junior Megan Lawrence, left, Farmington Hills sophomore Sydney Harless, middle, and Roseville sophomore Morgan Barbret, right, pose for a photo on Oct. 26 in the Bovee University Center.

When Megan Lawrence, Sydney Harless and Morgan Barbret spent eight weeks volunteering at Saginaw Correctional Facility, they witnessed a lingering issue in America today: mass incarceration. 

These women took a Central Michigan University honors course called, “Service Behind Bars," an 8-week course that teaches students about the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration. During those eight weeks, they had the opportunity to speak to the people in Saginaw Correctional Facility, some of whom are serving life sentences. 

A year later, the three have joined together to create a new registered student organization, Student Advocates For Prison Reform and the Incarcerated (SAPRI). SAPRI's first meeting is scheduled for 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 30 in Moore Hall room 108. 

Barbret, a sophomore from Roseville, said she had a close friend who was in and out of juvenile prison and prior to the course, never understood what her friend was going through.

“I didn’t know what to expect at all, as I didn’t know anything at all about incarceration,” Barbret said. “It was amazing to meet some of the men in the prison, who through the eight weeks at the facility, grew to be my brothers."

Taking the course helped Barbret understand the severity of mass incarceration and the impacts it has on individuals and families. She believes this issue should be addressed on campus and across the country. 

Harless, a sophomore from Farmington Hills, hopes that through the new RSO, students can understand the concept of “othering," realizing that these individuals who are incarcerated should be viewed as human beings, not monsters. 

SAPRI plans to coordinate activities and events such as documentary showings that educate students on incarceration and lives in prison, faculty panels with professors and students to discuss the importance of prison reform and educational trips to correctional facilities, hopefully returning to Saginaw Correctional Facility. 

Lawrence, a junior from Grand Rapids and vice president of SAPRI, said interested members don't need to have any experience or background knowledge related to mass incarceration and prison reform to join the RSO. 

“Sydney, Morgan, and myself are still seeking and willing to learn more about prison reform," Lawrence said. "We want students on campus who are intrigued about this issue to have a safe space to grow on learning this and educating others on how important prison reform should be in our country.

“Mass incarceration is tied to other issues in America such and social and racial issues, so I believe students can easily make connections to the issue and be more interested in educating themselves on prison reform and mass incarceration."