Every day, students on Appalachian State’s campus face different social problems, such as transgender rights, education, mental health, racial stigmas and much more. However, what many students may not realize is that just down the road at the Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, Tennessee, these problems exist as well but lead to some extremes that the typical student would not expect.
Barbara Zaitzow, a professor of criminal justice at Appalachian, has been touring and visiting prisons for almost 30 years, beginning as an undergraduate student at San Diego State when her professor took her to the largest women’s prison in California.
“This was my first time out of the classroom seeing that they were human beings behind the barbed wire, and that is when I knew I wanted to help shape the prison system,” Zaitzow said.
This semester, Zaitzow took her students on several trips to visit different prisons, and the final tour of the semester was of Northeast Correctional Complex. Zaitzow said that visiting prisons “puts a human face to a prison number that often keeps us at a distance and from appreciating the incarceration system.”
During the tour, the officers guiding the tour allowed the students to ask questions. Some students posed the question of where transgender people are placed. The answer was that they are placed in a facility that corresponds with the sex indicated on their birth certificate.
“More people have become aware that prisons exist and that the social problems are there, but there are not enough resources to address the issues across the spectrum,” Zaitzow said.
Zaitzow said that more of America’s funding goes toward prisons than education. CNN Money released a chart analyzing the government’s annual spending per elementary/secondary school students and per prisoner. In all 40 of the surveyed states, the prisoner rate was significantly higher. In North Carolina, the government spends about $8,000 per student, and about $29,000 per prisoner. In several other states, the cost of a prisoner is well over $45,000, whereas the student in most states ranges around $15,000.
Understandably, in a prisoner’s defense, the money is paying for their livelihood, but what would happen if more of this money was given to education and other crucial development programs? Would we see a drop in prison rate?
So little is known about the prison system nationally and the light that is given typically feeds the negative.
“I think the most unrecognized aspect of the prison system is that it’s comprised of people who did bad things, not bad people,” said Shelby Gilmer, a junior political science major on the trip. “We tend to write off the incarcerated as just a bunch of criminals, but often they committed crimes many have done a thousand times but were just never caught, for example: drugs.”
The officers shared part of their process for pairing cellmates, or as they call them, “cellies.” They take into consideration if someone is likely to be more dominant and place them with another dominant inmate to live with. This allows those who are more likely to be inferior inmates to be placed to live with other inferior inmates in order to decrease instances of violence and rape.
The officers also consider race and gang affiliation. At Northeast particularly, the officers said that there is not violence between gangs unless there is an issue of money, but in other areas, greater issues arise when the prison is understaffed. The understaffed prisons are forced to hire with less scrutiny, which leads to gang-affiliated guards, more violence and all around more difficulty for the functioning of the prison.
Another topic of discussion was mental health. Students were curious how people’s psychiatric state was being addressed, both on major and minor scales. The officers said that many of the inmates received treatment for mental health in various forms, but they also said that outside of the medical area, there are tons of little pills in the grass that the inmates had spit out right after receiving them. It caused the students to question if the aid people receive is enough to actually help.
Zaitzow said that there has been a growth in knowledge regarding mental health in the prison system over the years she has visited them, but she also recognized that there is only so much the prisons can do. She questioned if some of these inmates would be incarcerated if they had gotten the treatment they needed in the free world.
Zaitzow said she views visiting and donating to prisons as a way of giving back, and she encourages her students to do the same without expecting anything in return.
“You need to see it, smell it, taste it, feel it, in order to grow an understanding of it,” Zaitzow said.
Story by: Rachel Greenland, News Reporter
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated the name of the prison to be Northeastern Correctional Complex. The actual name of the prison is Northeast Correctional Complex. This change was made on Nov. 20.