Accelerated Sociology classes visit retired solitary confinement prison

On May 24, students from Accelerated Sociology classes at PHS visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, a solitary confinement prison that ceased operation after 1971. The field trip tied primarily into their study of social deviance—one of many topics covered in sociology—which focuses on the interaction between individuals and society as well as the implications of this relationship.

Due to annual scheduling conflicts and difficulties during the spring testing season, a sociology field trip had not yet been pursued before this year. Participants came from the four sections of Accelerated Sociology taught by history teachers Mark Shelley and Elizabeth Taylor. Other chaperones included three U.S. History I teachers who were able to tie this trip into the study of reform movements in America in their own classrooms.

Several other options for a trip were a full-functioning modern prison, food and homeless shelters in an inner-city ministry, and a hospital. After bringing into consideration the quantity of students on the trip and the students’ interests, the trip to a historic prison was chosen. The prison’s attraction as a field trip destination also complemented the study of novels like The Stranger by Albert Camus, various documentaries, primary source material, and the comparison of prison systems in different countries like America and Norway. Taylor, who had visited the prison last summer, had realized its potential as a field trip destination. “As soon as I stepped foot inside, I was thinking it would be a good possibility for a sociology class field trip,” she said.

The first component of the trip was a two-mile walking tour in the morning through two socioeconomically contrasting neighborhoods in Pennsylvania: a blue-collar setting next to an upper-class setting. The purpose was to identify differences in elements such as types of businesses and social destinations present.

Afterwards, the visit to the historical prison centered around a one and a half hour tour, which had been tailored to the age, interests, and focus of the audience. “Students saw several of the cell blocks, learned about the history of the prison, [and saw] the original vision for how it was going to work and changes that had to be made incrementally. There was eventually a full reversal from solitary confinement … to a congregate system where inmates [were] expected to congregate together for most of the day,” Taylor said.

Following the tour was a permanent exhibit, which contained 3D graphs documenting changes in the prison system over the past 40 years, and a temporary multimedia exhibition presenting the prison system today.

Students were able to connect better with the material they learned in the classroom by viewing its application in the outside world. “Sociology lends itself to opportunities for learning outside the classroom. The students seemed to have a real affinity for learning about the prisons and justice system in both my class and [Taylor’s] class,” Shelley said.

In particular, the viewing of the prison helped students gain insight into incarceration. “[Students] got a sense of how very good intentions can often end up not being realized for a variety of reasons … how policy can have unintended consequences,” Taylor said. “They also got a sense of modern issues with mass incarceration that we had talked about throughout the year, but they were able to see effects of that in ways you can’t capture inside a classroom.”

Additionally, some students were able to better visualize the past prison system. “When the prison was first built it was all solitary confinement … I couldn’t imagine being in that type of a situation for even more than a few days let alone sentences that [could] last two to eight years,” Will Christensen ’16 said.

Accelerated Sociology students had other interactive experiences throughout the year. In-class discussions often engaged all student voices. “They had to go out and deliberately make eye contact with people and see how long it takes for them to turn away … They had to do one [experiment] where they had to go in public and sing really loud or talk into their cell phones really loud and see what responses they got … They did some interview projects just to see what people’s fears and worries are in different points of life,” Shelley said.

Through the course, some students reached a deeper understanding of the forces which affect their lives. “[There are] a lot of things that [stem from] biology or sciences like that that are very concrete, but sociology is something where [entities] like your teachers or your peers or media all really affect you in this way you don’t usually think about until you start to study it,” said a current student, Fiona Finnegan ’17.

The platform of understanding built from studying sociology is constantly applied to contemporary life. “My sister-in-law … said ‘it can be one of the most useful classes or minors [to have] because it gives you such a rich understanding of the world,’” Shelley said. “‘As a teacher I would benefit from understanding certain concepts, as a lawyer I would benefit, as a doctor I would benefit, so it’s really a good foundational class for college—both in terms of what you study and how you interact with people.’”

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