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Studying At The School Of Hard Knocks

Inside a Level 4 inmate's cell at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
Angela Carone
Inside a Level 4 inmate's cell at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
Studying At The School Of Hard Knocks
An SDSU Professor is about to host his 100th student field trip to some of California's toughest prisons. We'll find out why he does it.

If you really want to learn about criminal justice, you need to go where the criminals are. That's been the guiding impulse behind the trips SDSU Professor Paul Sutton makes with his students to prisons like San Quentin and Folsom. Professor Sutton is about to make the 100th of these unique student field trips later this month. Exposure to the realities of America's prisons, including talks with inmates - even those on death row, has proven to be a memorable experience for SDSU criminal justice students, and in some cases a life-changing one.


Paul Sutton, Ph.D. is a professor of Criminal Justice at San Diego State University.

Michaela Vedra is an SDSU student majoring in criminal justice

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. If you really want to learn about criminal justice, you need to go where the criminals are. That's been the guiding impulse behind the trips SDSU professor Paul Sutton makes with his student to prisons like San Quentin and Folsom. Professor Sutton is about to make the 1 hundredth of these unique field trips later this month. Exposure to the realities of America's prisons, including talks with inmates, even those on death row, has proven to be a memorable experience for SDSU criminal justice students, and in some cases, a life changing one. I'd like to welcome my guests, doctor Paul Sutton is professor of criminal justice at SDSU. And professor Sutton, good morning.

SUTTON: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Michaela Vedra is a student at SDSU majoring in criminal justice. Michaela, good morning.

VEDRA: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we'd hike to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think you have any idea what it's like behind bars in California's prisons? Do you think conditions are too harsh? Or not harsh enough? Give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. So professor Sutton, where did you get the idea to take college students on a tour of our state prison system?

SUTTON: You know, it wasn't even my idea. A bunch of students came to me after my first year here, about 30áyears ago, at SDSU. Now, I had worked in Attica after the riot, way back when as a graduate student. And I had taken my sociology students at the university of New Mexico to the penitentiary. But we really only had one prison in the state. So the idea of going and seeing a whole bunch of prisons over the course of many days was something that I hadn't really thought about. In fact, if somebody had suggested it, I would have thought they were nut it is. In fact, when they did suggest it, I said you're nuts. A bunch of students came to me, and said -- 'cause they knew I'd made a couple of documentary films about prison, and they said take us to prison. 'Cause I was young and stupid and I didn't know any better. Going on a van, actually we didn't even take a van the first time. We took five individual cars, and 20 students, none of the prisons were on a map. We had to find out where they were, and write the instructions down on cards, and we used to have driver meetings so that everybody could find the next prison. One guy's car broke down. It was an unbelievable experience. But when they came to me with the idea, I thought, that might be cool, because we only had ten prisons. I said, if we do it right, we can see them all, and we'll know everything about California prisons.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you started these tours back in the '80s, right?


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is your 1 hundredth tour coming up. What is this tour gonna be like in.

SUTTON: We've kind of settled into an itinerary. So that we know pretty much what to expect, where to go, and over the course of the years, we've eliminated the tours that were a little bit slow and or that were repetitive or duplicative of other prisons. So what we do now is we did to very different kinds of institutions so -- and we do this pretty much each time now. So they don't change too much. What changes is the people. The staff. Not the inmates, the unit mas don't change too much, unfortunately. So this one will look much like they have looked for the past 5 or 6áyears.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Michaela, you're going to be going on this 1 hundredth field trip to prisons in California. What do you hope to gain by this experience?

VEDRA: Anything that I can, to be completely honest. It's just an amazing opportunity to be able to get to do this. And that is really -- to get to talk to inmates and get to even eat lunch with them or talk to guards and kind of just see all the prisons and how they working it's just an amazing opportunity, and it's something that I hope to gain everything from. I really just don't know what to expect. But I've heard amazing things.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you have been doing an internship at Donovan state prison; is that right?

VEDRA: It's not an internship, but yes, we have been doing intern volunteer work and job shadowing. We did a total of 40 hours over the last semester.

CAVANAUGH: See sew it's not going to be a completely different experience for you to enter a prison?

VEDRA: No, it's not. So I'll be used to the security checks and all of that, and going through, and being able to handle that, and I'll know what to expect on some several. But obviously, every prison does things a little bit different, I'm sure. So there's going to be a little bit of a culture shock, it's not one of those things that's gonna get repetitive and boring, and here we go again, even our JD going there, was a new experience every single time. So.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine, professor Sutton, though, there are some of your students who have never been inside a prison; is that right?

SUTTON: There are some of my prisons who have never been outside of San Diego. So it's funny, when we used to go up to Pelican Bay, for example, when I was younger and I could stand the trip, they were amazed by the Redwoods, you know? And when we went through San Francisco, they're like, wee never been to San Francisco. So for sure, most have never been inside a prison. Most have never been inside a jail.

CAVANAUGH: How do you prepare your students if are that experience?

SUTTON: I talk. And to the extent that things work, they listen. There isn't too much you can do. I suggest books they can read. I suggest that they watch TV documentaries, and things like, that kind of acclimate themselves, but mostly it's kind of preparing for something you've never been before, and you can't really predict what's gonna happen. So what I say is everything you do, everything you say, how you dress, how you conduct yourself isn't gonna work in prison. 'Cause prison is a whole different world. And you have to expect the unexpected. And just hope that everything goes well. But you can't chum up with people, you can't be all crazy, you can't wear jeans, and you have to watch what you say. You can't wander off and talk to people you find interesting.


SUTTON: So you really can't conduct yourself like you would normally do. So when people -- and I've been doing this long enough that it's normal and I don't think about it too much. When I read the students' papers after we come back because they all have to write kind of a log of what the experience meant to them, and what the experience was about for them, I'm always kind of amazed to relearn how new it was for them. So most write when I went through the first gate and it clanged behind me, I realized I was in prison. And of course, I'm screaming at them, get in order, shut up, do this, do that. And really not if you meanly appreciating the life changes they're going through, and how magnificently different it is to them, and usually about Wednesday I settle down, and go, okay, yeah, this is a group of students who are really seeing something for the first time. So I try to get them ready, and say don't do stupid things. Well, they don't know what's stupid in prison. You don't lean to fences because they tend to be electrified for motion sensors. And it's not like anybody can walk up and hit the electric fence which is lethal; that's very well protected. But if you lean on a fence in prison, you're probably setting off an alarm somewhere.


SUTTON: And people are tired, I want it lean on the fence, or you lean on a bunk bed. You don't. You don't touch anything. It's inmates' property, you respect it. So you really just say what you can in a couple of hours. We have a meeting at 530 in the morning where I test whether they can get up or not, and stay awake, and if they can't, I leave them home.

CAVANAUGH: Are your kids scared?

SUTTON: At different points in the tour, some -- probably everybody is scared at some point. And most will admit it afterward. They don't want to talk about it beforehand. But they're scared of different things. They're scared of the uncertainty. Some are scared of the physical threat that they imagine there is. And even those who walk in kind of assured, when they get ready to walk out onto the yard in Soledad, where they may have, like, 1500 inmates, they're like whoa, I don't really want to do this. I don't need to go out there with all those guys. I'm perfectly happy at this side of the fence. So at some time, something hits them, and it's different things, you know for people different. Just talking to an inmate may scare some of them to death, where in fact there's no physical threat there. It's just an emotional thing.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone, I'm speaking with doctor Paul Sutton, he's privacy of criminal justice at SDSU. And my guest is also Michaela Vedra, she is a student majoring in criminal justice at SDSU. We're talking about the 1 hundredth student field trip to California state prisons that doctor Sutton is going to be hosting later this month, and we're taking are why calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's hear from Burt, calling us from Poway, good morning, Burt, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. How are you this good morning?

CAVANAUGH: So fine, thank you.


CAVANAUGH: We're fine, what's your question, sir?


NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, I guess it is a question. I recently had a conversation with a fellow who had spent two years in prison. Smart guy, well educated, had an MF and a couple of BBAs, and he had spent two years in one of our state prisons here and had indicated that he thought the biggest problem was there was the inconsistency in treatment, particularly from guards, which he thought was an inconsistency in training and also he thought that there may be needed to be better control over how they decide who can be a guard, because he said some of these people were clearly sadistic people who enjoyed the job and enjoyed the parts of compelling people to do things that maybe they didn't want to do at any particular time.

CAVANAUGH: Burt, let me find out if professor Sutton addresses any of those concerns during these field trips. What do you learn about the guards?

SUTTON: You know, it's funny the way you asked that question. My response is first of all, once we hit the trip, we hit the road, even though I'm on the microphone for about six hours a day, and it's a five-day trip, by the way, it's not just in and out, so we're on the road in a charter bus for five days, we leave first thing in the morning Monday, and get back late Friday night. Most of what the students get I've learned, they get from inside the joint. I talk and talk and talk and talk, and sometimes I can't even keep them awake. So what really happens is they learn it from the inside, and yes, there are all kinds of opportunities for them to observe that kind of thing. On occasion, we will have an officer, and you don't say guard when you're in prison, you say guard, you're gonna get a 20-minute lecture. We're not guards, we're correctional officers. But in any case, they will demonstrate what they are and who they are and how they act. It doesn't take a genius, it's not rocket science to watch how they interact with inmates and realize some of them aren't as well prepare forward that job as they should be. And some are completely inappropriate for the job. Now, when you're doing the tour you can't step aside and say, well, that really wasn't appropriate. I tell the students, watch what's going on. There's gonna be all kinds of stuff going on everywhere around you, and what you're gonna learn is a basis or a function of everything that's going on. Listen to what's going on. Don't be talking to each other. So if they do that, yes, absolutely, they will see the kinds of things that Burt is talking about. They will see it themselves just in terms of going into the prison, every prison is its own little castle, and the warden is the king or queen.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I want to ask Michaela, have you seen so far? You heard Burt's question about sort of an inconsistency of treatment. What's been your experience working with the officers who guard the prisoners in prison?

VEDRA: Actually, at RJD, I didn't really interact a lot with the guards. My interaction with the guards were very minimal. Or sorry, correctional officers, not guards. But everyone that I encountered, everyone that I talked to, they actually treated inmates with respect, you give them respect, they give it back to you, that's kind of the goal they're hoping for when you're talking to them that way. I never saw anything that was disrespectful or treating them like they weren't human or anything like that. The people that I inn countered there were a little bit higher than correctional officers in terms of I'm involved with people -- I'm involved with the healthcare, and the prison programs in there like PIA and everything, so the correctional officer interaction was very minimal.

CAVANAUGH: Now, these tours sound like they could be life changing. They sound incredibly educational. But professor Sutton, what is the point?

SUTTON: Different points for different people. In a word, I would hope that the experience is humanizing for people. And they may not even have to be criminal justice majors. I happen to take criminal justice majors just because they're the ones who are most willing to take the risks. But I've taken other folks from other majors, and I've had people -- you know, people work for a judge downtown, and will come back and say my boss wants to go with you on one of these trips. I think it's the kind of thing that everybody, if they could, somehow, if they had a week, which most people don't, they should have the experience. They should go through it. Because it is going to change their minds about a whole lot of things. About inmates, about the professionals in the profession, about how much money we're spending on this incarceral state that we really can't afford. I mean, ten and a half billion dollars a year is insane in terms of what we get for the money. And that's one of the things we see is what we get for the money. And most of the students come back going, how does it cost that much? Because we're doing much more than warehousing. And let me add real quickly the point that was just being made about the people in the prison. We can't paint anything about prison with a broad stroke brush because one of the things I've learned after doing this there are about 28áyears, I've watched people start off as correctional officers, go onto counselors, end up being wardens and retire. They change, and the jock changes them, some of them it changes them for the better, some of them it changes for the worse. But what does happen is after they come in, kind of cowboy, John Wayne, and I'm gonna fight all the bad guys, and the things that Burt was talking about, after they have a few years under their belt, they realize that's not the best way to interact with inmates or other professionals on the staff. And they either change, they become more effective, or they're pretty much driven out by others or their own realization that they're not really cut out for the work.

CAVANAUGH: That's a good point. We're talking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. On the line with us now, former state assembly member Lori Salda±a, calling from Clairemont, good morning, and welcome to These Days, Lori.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. And I real appreciate professor Sutton's last remarks about the incarceration costs, and I'm wondering, this fall, I'll be teaching at SDSU, and we're doing a day of action for students to explain why the state budget costs are being cut from their education futures in such -- and also their professions, social workers, law enforcement, and I'm wondering how does he talk with his students when he talks about that ten and a half billion dollars that's not going to education, that it is not going to social services and healthcare, and what do his students think of their future careers that might be possible given the direction state funding has been going?

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. What do you say to them, professor?

SUTTON: You know, that's why I teach. I get a lot of time. And a lot of days, and sometimes I change my story. I pretty much take it as a given that an awful lot of what we do in corrections is just wrong. And in California, it's a great laboratory. We have moreinmates in more prisons and spend more money with probably among the worst results of any place else in the country. So sometimes I suspect, when I talk about cost, I just throw it out there and figure people are gonna be aghast and shocked, but the students don't have a lot to build with that. They're still thinking like their parents think, these guys are bad guys, they need to be locked up, it will cost what it costs, and to hell with them. I'm not gonna worry about that. When they go on the trip, they realize it's not like that. That we could do better with what we spend. We could do a lot better. But I appreciate and I recognize from the get go these are people barely past their teenaged years, they're got a whole world in front of them, a whole life in front of them, and I want to expose them to -- I mean, they can see what's happening. They can walk into the school and see none of the classrooms are operational because we fired all the teachers, and we've done, essentially that.

CAVANAUGH: Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of the differences between the prisons in California? Is there something that sticks out? One facility? This is a better facility, or is this a worse facility? Or this is totally over crowded or this one isn't as badly over crowded? Does anything stick in your mind like that?

SUTTON: Well, the biggest thing that sticks in mind is the variation. . And they are different for very good reasons. I mean, they're very different. And that's why on the trip we go to California men's colony, which is a relatively open institution. In fact, the inmates, we have anywhere form six to ten lifers doing the tour. They're the ones who take us around, and the students are elbow to elbow with a killer. And they can do that there because the program is set up that way, and the inmates understand the rules that way. That would never happen in Salinas valley or CSP Sacramento or Pelican Bay. Those inmates are much more violate, much more predatory, much more explosive, much less predictable. So you can't run Pelican Bay like you run California men's colony. We have a clarification system, which to the extent that it works, and it's got problems, we separate the inmates. So the good inmate are in the better institutions, or at least they're better because they've got better inmates, and the worse inmates are in the worse institutions or at least the tougher institutions where security is the watch word. And when you've got security, you got people locked up a whole lot longer during the day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Jane is calling from Coronado, good morning, Jane, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning, I'm a retired psychologist from RJ Donovan state prison. And I'm glad that you're addressing this topic. I concur with the privacy. My experience working as a psychologist for many year at Donovan here in San Diego was that really the inmates, I really had a lot of compassion, of course I'm a psychologist. But actually the correctional officers, you know, varied from person to person. And a lot of the strange alliances form because you have those who are called -- they're not called snitches but basically that's what they are, with the captains, and there's a lot of dynamics that go on in a prison setting that I don't think a movie has ever addressed the kind of culture that exists. And I concur with the professor that everyone should have the experience of at least take a look AT&T what goes on. And to think that we spend so much money on a prison setting, as part of the medical staff, and not enough on our children's education, maybe we could privatize, not privatize as in government, but allowing anyone to run school districts, but if we put this kind of money into schooling we would definitely be --

CAVANAUGH: Jane, thank you, thank you for calling in. I think there are a lot of people who might agree with your point. I wonder, you know, there's been a lot of reality prison shows on TV. I don't know if you've caught any of them, professor Sutton, but I'm thinking about lockup on MSNBC, for instance. Why do you think there is an interest in shows like that?

SUTTON: I'm glad you asked that. I don't have a very good answer to it, but I'm fascinated by the reality of it, by the truth of it. It started with Scared Straight, way back when, and I was making my first documentary called Doing Time at the same time that Shapiro was making Scared Straight. They finished right ahead of us, and they kind of stole the thunder of the world. I think it's the kind of general public knee-jerk reaction. It's a vengeance kind of feeding venom. People -- it's about us and them. We're the good guys, and they're the bad guys, and we want see -- knowing we're the good guys, we want to see the bad guys suffer. And the more we see them suffer, the more vindicated we feel that they're doing the right thing, and that they deserve it. So all of these, lockup, lock in, lock out, all these shows, and MSNBC's got them, and national Geographic's got them, and everybody's getting into the prison so called reality theater --

CAVANAUGH: And how real are they?

SUTTON: They're not. They're real for the piece of the pie that they're talking about, but they talk as if that's the only piece of the pie. They don't go it a place like California men's colony because they're not gonna see people talking about having cut off the head of their mother and eating it. They get the crazies on these shows. And there are all kinds of crazy people in prison. But the people in prison are not all crazy. If lock up were honest, no one would watch it. Because it wouldn't be sensational, it wouldn't be exciting, it wouldn't be about all those crazy people. The problem is, and I think they do a small service, but if they were more honest, they would do a lot better service, but people would stop watching because they really do give the wrong impression of inmates, of guards, and of institutions. And of the whole process of incarceration. They're just about the crazy people, and they're about the lunatics, and the gang bangers. All of whom don't get me wrong, all of whom exist in prison, but not to the extent that that's the exclusive domain of prison.

CAVANAUGH: Michaela, you have been working in a prison. RJ Donovan, in the south bay. And I'm wondering, what have you found out so far from that environment that you think might affect your future career?

VEDRA: Good question. The environment hasn't been an extremely stressful environment for me, actually. When we all went in our first tour, we didn't know what to expect. Before we even started working there, we got a tour of the premises, we starred thinking there was gonna be alarms going off everywhere. Obviously, all of our experiences were watching the shows lockup and all of those prison shows and everything like that. So we were expecting it to be crazy. So when we got there, it was kind of a disappointment at first, it was like oh, you know, what's going on? We want to see some action. But realistically, I'm glad it didn't happen. Because we weren't prepared for the action, and we would just be getting in the way. So I didn't see anything or experience anything that would deter me from getting involved in it, but I know that it's out there, and that's the biggest concern that I have, I didn't have to experience or prepare myself for it, I know I mentally was able to know something could go on, but the fact that nothing did go on, it didn't shape my views on wanting to get into corrections or not get into corrections.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you have more experiences coming on this tour later this month right?

VEDRA: Absolutely, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: We are out of time. I want to thank you so much, doctor Paul Sutton, and Michaela Vedra, thank you for being here, and for speaking with us.

VEDRA: Thanks for having us.

SUTTON: Thank you so much.