Last weekend ten Grinnellians interviewed inmates in Mitchellville’s Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, asking detailed questions about their history of violence and victimization.
Organized through Domestic Violence Alternatives/Sexual Assault Center (DVA/SAC), student volunteers will continue to interview potential candidates for commutation assistance—help towards reducing prison sentences— through the Skylark program, an initiative of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV).
Through the Skylark Project, 50 women at Mitchellville will participate in a three-tiered interview process to examine causal links between domestic violence or sexual assault and the crime for which they were convicted. Once a connection is established, ICADV helps strengthen inmates’ arguments for decreasing their prison time.
According to Katie Jares ’07, the ICADV project coordinator, volunteers will help put together the prisoners’ cases for commutation. “Grinnell students will be helping with the second interview to create a profile for us about the offender’s history of victimization,” Jares said.
According to Jares, the project’s effect on the surrounding community and the student interviewers, is just as important as the legal and political processes Skylark is involved in. “One of the main goals of the project is to educate people about how women end up in this situation and just how ubiquitous assault is in incarcerated women,” Jares said.
The volunteers hope to exhibit the strong influences that abuse and victimization can have on the inmates’ convictions. “These women are offenders in the eyes of the law but they are also victims,” said interviewer Noga Ashkenazi ’09.
Ashkenazi said she was drawn to the project by its uniqueness in scope and a target population that is often forgotten by service projects.
“When you think of activism, or volunteering even, you rarely think of a population of inmates,” Ashkenazi said. “Prisons are located in the middle of nowhere, it’s so easy for us to look away, to not even think about them.”
Student interviewers were trained to question inmates about their histories of violence, and spent hours interviewing candidates. “The actual interview process was very intense,” said Cecilia Darby ’12, who spent over two hours interviewing inmates last weekend. “It was like nothing I’ve ever done before. … The whole experience was incredibly humanizing.”
Under the Skylark umbrella, ICADV staff offers group therapy classes addressing trauma and abuse at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, one-on-one pre-release counseling concerning healthy relationships, pre-release classes on domestic violence resources, along with commutation assistance.