Behind the Walls

A dozen University of Tulsa Arts and Sciences students learned a lesson in crime and punishment last February when they traveled to the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma.

The students interviewed female inmates as part of John Coward’s journalism class, “Documentary Workshop.” The assignment gave students a chance to learn about and document the lives of Oklahomans different from themselves.

“I wanted students to get off campus and out of their comfort zones,” Coward said. “In other words, I didn’t want them doing typical documentary stories, I wanted them to do something out of the ordinary that would make an impact.”

Each student spoke with a nonviolent inmate for more than an hour, each discovering why the woman was incarcerated, her background and what she had learned since her sentencing.

The students’ stories and photographs of the inmates were posted on a class blog.

“The women were positive about their rehabilitation, and I think the students were surprised by how willing they were to share their stories,” Coward said. “Through the interviews, students found that each of these women has a family, a life and a story behind her incarceration.”

The students spent more than two hours total at the prison – which is just an hour’s drive southeast of Tulsa – interviewing the women, visiting the dormitory and learning abut Oklahoma’s correctional system.

Coward said Oklahoma has more women in prison than any other state. And according to state officials, the prison problem has been blamed on policies like the 85 percent rule, which mandates offenders committing certain crimes must serve 85 percent of their sentences. This in turn, makes prisons overcrowded.

“It was a unique opportunity for the students to learn about an aspect of society they may not have otherwise been exposed to,” Coward said.