U of M students visit Parnall Correctional Facility's Vocational Village

By Monica Drake
Office of Performance and Transformation

Four University of Michigan students spent a week in prison.

This summer, sophomores Abby Richburg, Caleigh Lin, Jack Behn, and junior Manisha Dayananda went to the Parnall Correctional Facility to observe the Vocational Village.

These students are part of U of M’s spring Magnify Program – made up of 50 undergrads, commonly studying business or organization studies. As part of the program, teams spend a week embedded at one of 10 partner organizations, and they use evidence-based tools and field research methods to interpret the organization’s positive capabilities such as resilience, gratitude and compassion.

“We’re definitely biased that we got the best organization,” said Behn.

Richburg said her team picked the Michigan Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) Vocational Village for their project because “we thought it was one of the organizations with the most potential for positive impact.”

“When we all came in, we obviously had previous beliefs of what we thought prison would be like. We assumed that it was meant to be a punishment for people who have wronged society in some way,” said Dayananda. “But the Vocational Village has a different purpose. Through the Vocational Village, inmates who intend to do better after they get out are given the resources to better enable them to succeed out there. It breaks the cycle so they don’t keep returning to prison.”

Richburg added, “Corrections is changing from punitive to more rehabilitative.”

At the end of the week, the team presented to an audience of MDOC employees, including Parnall’s Warden Melinda Braman, the trends they observed during their study at the Vocational Village. The team was specifically tasked with observing the resilience of the population at Parnall.

“Resilience plays a huge part in rehabilitation and keeping recidivism rates down,” said Lin.

The Vocational Village is a program where inmates learn trades such as carpentry, masonry, robotics, automotive technology, and forklift operation. Behn said, “Whenever we talked with the men who are part of the Vocational Village and would ask what they were doing, almost immediately and gleefully, they would show us everything they were working on. They were so proud. To have someone see it and appreciate it, I think, really gave them a lot of self-confidence.”

Richburg said the carpentry curriculum, for example, allows the inmates to demonstrate their creativity.

“Students are encouraged to come up with their own ideas. If you walk around, you can see doll houses, barns, and sculptures. One man I talked to for a while made a wooden car where, if you pushed a button, the top would open up. He told us, ‘I thought of this.’ It was cool to see their creativity in action,” she said.

“When we talk about the Vocational Village, we talk about putting people back into society so they can be meaningful contributors. But in carpentry, I think people are already starting that – when they make projects that are donated to nonprofits or used around the facility. That gives them that feeling of purpose.”

Dayananda said she asked an inmate who was part of the automotive curriculum if he felt like, once he was released from prison, he would be able to work together with others at a job.

“He told me, ‘We’re in prison. If you can work with anyone here, you can work with anyone in the world,’” she said. “There are usually multiple people working on each car simultaneously, and they do it with hardly any conflict. They work really well together, and they have learned how to collaborate.”

Dayananda said there is a stereotype about inmates that they want to be better than and have an advantage over the other inmates. But this isn’t the case in the Vocational Village.

“It seems that everyone wants to build themselves up together. Just by seeing how people help each other out, it really goes to show how they are working toward the same goal,” she said.

Behn said an important part of the Vocational Village is that it gives the inmates a sense of identity.

“It makes them feel like they can achieve something, someone does believe in them, and they are no longer just a prisoner. They have a trade – something they can offer the world – and that trade can help them bounce back in tough times,” he said.

In observing the MDOC staff at Parnall, Richburg said the team found these top strengths – adaptability, “walking the talk,” and role-crafting. She said the administration is skilled in calmly resolving conflicts and going above their “on paper job descriptions.”

“If you talk to anyone in the staff, you can tell they have a true passion for what they do. That really shines through when you are seeing them in action,” she said.

Lin said, being at Parnall Correctional Facility for just a week, she too gained a passion for what they do there.

“This is something I never thought I would care about and, after this week, I’m so passionate about it that I just talked to the warden about possible volunteering opportunities so I can come back here and help out,” she said.

For more information about U of M’s Magnify Program, visit http://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/learning-programs/magnify.