The state correctional institution in Fayette County is more than an hour’s drive south of Pittsburgh. And nestled among the forests of the Laurel Highlands, it is a world away from Pittsburgh’s urban streets.
For five weeks this spring, students at the the city’s police academy made a weekly trek down to the prison. About 30 cadets piled into vans at the break of dawn to arrive at the facility around 8 a.m.
After making their way through security on a drizzly day last month, the students wound through long hallways. They then crossed a prison yard as inmates peered out from cell windows.
Once inside, the group entered a vast room with a circle of about 60 chairs, half of them occupied by inmates in rust-colored jumpsuits.
It was an unusual meeting, considering that police often have no contact with people in prison after making an arrest and, perhaps, testifying in court. The relationship between prisoners and the police is naturally adversarial. But Duquesne University professor Norm Conti, who leads the program, holds that that dynamic is precisely why they should talk to one another. And it didn’t take long for everyone to dive into the discussion Conti led.
Inmates offered advice on how to build relationships in communities where people often don’t trust police, and some of the tips were arguably more helpful than others.
“Just, like, don’t sweat the small stuff,” one inmate told the cadets. “And like, don’t do too much patrolling, none of that.”
“What does that mean?” Conti asked the incarcerated man. “Can you be more specific?”
“I mean, I don’t know,” he replied. “Don’t do too much policing, like, you know what I’m saying?”
The room erupted in laughter.
“So I am a new police officer. I go back to Pittsburgh: ‘Well, the guys in prison told me not to do too much, so I guess …’” Conti trailed off, his sarcasm prompting more laughter.
‘The opposite of the police academy’
Following the session, Conti said the idea behind the sessions is that "when you talk to someone with totally different experiences and totally different opinions, that’s the best chance to learn.”
Conti has led several of the police academy classes. He got the idea more than 10 years ago when he was being trained in how to run a similar program that got inmates talking to college students.
“It just struck me when I was sitting there, like, 'This is like the opposite of the police academy,'” Conti remembered. “You sit in circles; you talk about your feelings; you see people as more than, you know, their position as an incarcerated human being.”
One inmate participant, Kenny, says before he went to prison 21 years ago, some officers cut him slack for minor transgressions. (Under Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policy, inmates cannot disclose their last name or other identifying details.) For example, he was ordered to clean a street corner when he was caught smoking marijuana, and the offense was never added to his record.
But he said another officer arrested him for carrying a single piece of crack cocaine.
“At that time, I was trying to get into the military,” Kenny said. “And that one arrest kept me from joining.”
Kenny added that, if he had enlisted, he would not have committed the crime that ultimately landed him in prison.
‘I have more power than even what I knew’
In class, Kenny urged cadets to get to know residents before they potentially throw their lives off course.
“So when you’re riding through, you can pull over and be like, ‘Hey, how y’all doing? What’s going on?” he advised.
Police recruit Alexa Siweckyj took the point, but she said civilians also bear responsibility for how police encounters play out.
“We don’t know what’s going on in your life. But you also don’t know what’s going on in our life or that shift,” Siweckyj said. “So if you just have that understanding, like that type of respect that we’re just here to do our job and try and help you out, things could go a lot smoother.”
Some of the inmates said the discussions did give them a greater appreciation for how tough police work is. And Kenny said the class also dispelled his notion that officers and the people they put behind bars have little in common.
“I met some of the cadets who, they said, both their parents [were] addicted to drugs,” Kenny recalled. “They have brothers and sisters [who were] addicted to drugs. And one was homeless for years, and she found a way to rise up out of all that and be able to put that uniform on and protect people.”
For her part, Siweckyi said talking with Kenny changed the way she’ll approach her job.
“Me and him talked a lot one-on-one,” she said after the last of the five weekly classes had ended. “It kind of made me realize that I have more power than even what I knew.”
Siweckyi and the other recruits are now bringing that knowledge to the streets. They graduated from the police academy last month.