Behind Bars: Students Take Criminal Justice Lessons to State Penitentiary


Nebraska Wesleyan University senior Morgan Shea and four of her classmates spent part of their spring semester going to prison. 

The students learned early that crime doesn’t pay. They wanted to share that with others.

As part of an independent study project supervised by James Perry, assistant professor of professional studies, the students visited the Nebraska State Penitentiary one hour a week teaching inmates about the criminal justice system and multiple aspects of forensic science.

“At first I seriously believed they would just look at us like we were crazy and be like ‘duh, we know how the system works, we’re in here,’ but it wasn’t like that at all,” said Shea, a psychology major from Sterling.

The idea for the class — sparked by conversations in a student book club — led Perry to invite a group of students including Shelby Clemans, Rachel Vergith, Rachel DenHerder, Kristin Plegge and Shea to teach legal concepts such as the difference between crime control and due process to inmates with a wide array of criminal records ranging from robbery to child abuse resulting in death to second-degree murder.

“When you teach, you learn way more,” said Perry.

Before stepping foot in the prison, Perry prepared the students by bringing Mark Wentz, the prison’s director of education, to campus. Perry also helped the students create specific lesson plans. Shea admitted that she was nervous about teaching without Perry’s aid, but that interaction with the inmates became easier and more entertaining as time went on.

“I learned a lot from the inmates and it reinforced my idea that everyone makes mistakes and there are always ways to try to correct them,” said Shea. “The inmates themselves were probably my favorite part of the whole experience because they were not afraid to open up and tell us how they felt about certain issues, as well as share a bunch of personal experiences that made it easier to put myself in their shoes.”

After five weeks, the inmates were given a survey to assess what they learned from the class. When asked if the Introduction to Criminal Justice class was a positive experience, 11 out of the 13 inmates strongly agreed. Nine of the 13 inmates also said that they would like to do more reading as a result of the class.

Thanks to its success, Perry will incorporate another teaching session this semester in hopes of giving more students a chance to experience this project.

“This is a great opportunity,” said Shea. “I cannot wait to go back there and meet new inmates to be able to experience their views and help in the best way I know how.”