NMU student's internship takes her behind prison walls
By Christie Bleck
An internship at the Marquette Branch Prison has given Northern Michigan University student Natalie Avila a broader perspective on her career goals.
Avila, a criminal justice major from Holland set to graduate from NMU in August, spent 15 weeks at the prison performing a variety of tasks in the mailroom, accounting office, business office and other sections.
"Every week was different," Avila said. "I was placed mostly on the administrative side of things, so it was mostly behind the scenes, seeing how a prison is run."
James Alexander, deputy warden at the facility, said Avila was an outstanding intern.
" I believe her internship has allowed her to credibly relate theoretical concepts from her criminal justice courses at NMU with 'real life' practical applications," Alexander said. "Natalie had an opportunity to work in a number of different departments at Marquette Branch Prison and did so conscientiously and proficiently. She was a dedicated and conscientious student intern. I believe this experience has broadened her academic experience and will add important credentials to her resume."
For instance, Alexander said Avila worked alongside staff as they interacted with prisoners. Throughout her internship, she worked in housing, custody and program services. This included working with housing unit supervisors as they completed security classification screens, parole board interviews and prisoner disciplinary and classification processes.
Avila also reviewed the prisoner litigation process, including Freedom of Information Act requests and cases in which the state prosecuted prisoners for new crimes. She was involved with scheduling attorney visits, including telephone conferences and video conferences, and reviewing visitor applications requiring approval or denial.
Alexander said Avila also had the unique opportunity to work in the Prisoner Re-Entry Office. The focus of the Prisoner Re-Entry Program, he pointed out, is to seamlessly transition prisoners from prison to their community residence. Avila saw the coordinated effort from the number of agencies involved in a prisoner’s release working collaboratively to ensure a successful outcome.
(Marquette Branch Prison’s Prisoner Re-Entry Program has a 93 percent success rate, Alexander noted.)
Avila watched many inner processes at the prison, which included preparing prisoners for a productive life in the outside world so they don't return. She also shadowed mental health social workers.
One of her favorite duties was translating telephone calls.
"I'm bilingual," said Avila, who is fluent in Spanish. "It worked, so I'm really glad I had the opportunity to do that."
Working in a prison does carry some element of risk, but Avila said she was not allowed to be around the Level 5 prisoners -- the ones needing the highest amount of security -- instead, only the more trusted Level 1 inmates (there are only two levels at Marquette). She did have to carry a personal protection device, which she said acted like a GPS. Fortunately, Avila never had to use the device, saying she always felt safe and secure.
Avila did have to keep her guard up at all times. After all, she was working in a prison. That meant interacting with inmates whose crimes didn't seem to match their personas.
"When you read what they did," she said, "you can't believe what they did."
Avila acknowledged her images of prison life came through movies.
"For some reason, I thought I'd be more Level 5," she said.
Avila's real-world experience changed that, allowing her to see many facets of prison.
"Basically, it's a city within a city," she said of the Marquette facility.
For example, the Marquette Branch Prison has its own power plant and garment facility, and prisoners are the barbers.
Then there's the mailroom where Avila spent some of her time.
"The amount of mail they get is insane," she said.
Avila also saw how prisoners can register complaints in the proper way.
"The grievance process is a way for them to vent, a way to have a voice," Avila said.
(Alexander explained the Michigan Department of Corrections grievance process allows a prisoner to try to resolve an issue with a staff member before submitting a formal grievance. If the grievance is unsolved, the prisoner may submit a formal complaint to the Grievance Office. A staff person then investigates and responds, after which a prisoner can appeal if dissatisfied with the response. A prisoner also can appeal if still displeased with that second decision, with the final step being an appeal to the Prisoner Affairs Section in Lansing for the final outcome.)
Avila originally wanted to be a juvenile probation officer, but now is interested in working at a prison. However, going to graduate school and studying criminal justice or social work might be an option before she heads into the workforce.
"Being at the prison definitely gave me a wider perception of things," Avila said.