Students get taste of life behind bars
On one side of the small courtroom sat orange-clad inmates. On the other: 47 squirming Fargo fifth-graders. The Cass County courthouse became a living classroom Thursday for the Roosevelt Elementary School students. They saw orange prisoners'...
On one side of the small courtroom sat orange-clad inmates.
On the other: 47 squirming Fargo fifth-graders.
The Cass County courthouse became a living classroom Thursday for the Roosevelt Elementary School students.
They saw orange prisoners' jumpsuits, piles of criminal files and defendants facing a judge.
Later, while touring the new Cass County jail, they watched inmates playing basketball.
They heard the bang of jail doors slamming behind them as they walked down "I-94", the jail's long corridor.
They asked questions: Are people allowed to bring small personal items into jail? Can inmates plant gardens? Do prisoners ever get to call their parents in the middle of the night?
The 10- and 11-year-old students were participating in "My Day in Court", a program started about 15 years ago by former Fargo attorney Mary Maring, now a North Dakota Supreme Court justice in Bismarck, and other members of the National Exchange Club Great Western Chapter.
Every year, about two-thirds of Fargo's fifth-graders participate in the program, said Chief Deputy Jim Thoreson of the Cass County Sheriff's Office, who has given the jail tour for the past five years.
"We felt this was a way to impact kids early on, to let them know there are real life consequences to committing a crime," Maring said.
She added that many people don't have a clue what goes on in the courtroom.
"The judicial branch is a hidden branch of government," she said.
During the day, students spend one hour in court, one hour touring the jail and asking questions.
With wide-eyed stares, they peered through glass windows at the jail's laundry room, a security room that receives images from 108 cameras and an immense kitchen.
"I bet the cooks at your school would like to have a kitchen that big," Thoreson said.
Thoreson explained that even though the jail can only house 252 inmates, the kitchen is big enough to feed 600. This is because the county wanted to be able to expand the jail when necessary.
Inmates wake up at 6 a.m. and are locked in their rooms at 10 p.m., he said. They can watch television, but jail staff determine what they watch.
"They don't have freedom," Thoreson said. "Their freedom has been taken away from them." Some of the Roosevelt students were surprised to find out that inmates can watch television and play games.
"I thought they wouldn't be able to do anything fun," said student Tiffany Nerud.
"They get to do some stuff that we don't get to do," student Vance Dahl said.
Not all inmates have such privileges, Maring said Thursday by phone. Those who don't behave have them taken away.
Most who are incarcerated say the worst thing is having their freedom taken away from them, she said.
"Most people are repulsed by the lack of privacy. Most people would do anything not to be locked up."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Lisa Schneider at (701) 241-5529