Guest lecturers lend a human-centered approach to penology studies at HWS.
In order to help students get comfortable with “confronting ambiguity and reconciling conflicting objectives,” Associate Professor of Sociology Jim Sutton concentrates his “Penology” course on elevating the voices of people who have firsthand experiences with the penal system. His learning objectives for the course focus on understanding penal and correctional responses to criminal offenses with an eye toward the history that has shaped the current nature of the system.
Sutton also makes it a practice to bring guest speakers into the classroom to expose students to a variety of perspectives.
“The speakers make it possible for students to form a more personal connection to course material,” says Sutton. “We deal with topics that are often sensationalized, distorted or simply invisible, and the speakers allow for us to bring in the human factor.”
Speakers have included James Schuler, a formerly incarcerated man who now works in the Upstate New York community as the Assistant Director of Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. Schuler also serves as coordinator of Wayne County Youth Court and chair of the board of My Brother’s Keeper in Wayne County. Other speakers were exonerated former death row prisoners, the loved ones of murder victims, probation officials, and most recently, staff members from the Auburn Correctional Facility. Last semester, Sutton and the Sociology Department brought Deanne Quinn Miller, a spokesperson for the forgotten victims of Attica, and investigative reporter Gray Craig to campus for a talk on the Attica Prison Riot and their book, The Prison Guard’s Daughter: My Journey Through the Ashes of Attica.
“Obtaining firsthand insights and accounts from individuals who have been inside the system helped me learn so much about corrections and the penal system that just can’t be taught in a classroom, but has to be felt in the moment,” says Carly Bielecki ’25, an intended sociology major who based her decision to come to HWS in part on the unique opportunity to work under Sutton, a sociologist and criminologist.
Sutton is one of the few active criminologists who teach at a liberal arts institution. He sees HWS as a unique place for studying penology. “That we offer this course is a point of distinction for HWS in my view, especially when you consider that this region of the country is the most significant when looking at the history of prisons and punishments in the U.S.”
Prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, Sutton led students on trips to several correctional facilities, including Attica, Auburn, and Elmira. The Auburn Correctional Facility is the oldest prison in the United States. It opened in 1818 and was known for the Auburn Silent System in the 1800s and for being the first prison to use the electric chair for an execution. The Elmira Reformatory was trendsetting in the late 19th century for its focus on rehabilitation. Its longtime warden, Zebulon Brockway, is credited with establishing parole in the United States. The Attica Correctional Facility was the site of the largest prison riot in U.S. history in 1971. These institutions all continue to operate as maximum-security prisons today and are within easy driving distance of HWS.
Sutton is a national expert in criminology. He is a lifetime member of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and affiliated with the American Society of Criminology. At HWS, he has organized a speaker series related to crime, victimization and injustice, and was named the Civically Engaged Faculty Member of the Year in 2018. He earned his A.A. from Long Beach City College, B.A. in sociology from California State University, Long Beach, and a M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from Ohio State University. He has taught in the Sociology Department at HWS since 2012.
In the photo above, staff members from the Auburn Correctional Facility visit Associate Professor of Sociology Jim Sutton’s “Penology” course.