Sociation Today® 
The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Sociological Association:

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ISSN 1542-6300
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George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Richard Dixon,

Chien Ju Huang,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Ron Wimberley,
 N.C. State University

Robert Wortham,
 North Carolina
 Central University




Volume 3, Number 1
Spring 2005

    Model Prison:
Simulation in a Corrections Class

Janice Rienerth
Appalachian State University


    David Kolb has developed a way of looking at learning as a cyclical process.  His model (Gish 1979) includes the steps of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.  In this process a person has an experience, reflects on it as new or related to other experiences, develops concepts to name and connect it with other experiences, and uses the concepts in later actions as a guide for behavior.  Out of these sequential steps the person derives a new set of experiences that lead to a repeat of the learning cycle.  Effective learning occurs when all four steps come into play.  In the academic setting, learning usually focuses on only one or two of the above steps.  For example, in the social sciences we are very good at presenting lecture information or, what Kolb would call, abstract conceptualization.  We fall short, however, in providing the steps of concrete experience or active experimentation.  Applying Kolb’s model, educators need to develop situations for students to experience all the steps.  The students’ incorporation of additional learning steps into their academic studies could result in students more fully internalizing and therefore retaining, skills and knowledge from their courses.  This teaching note will discuss the uses of a simulation prison project in a sociology corrections class as one technique toward this goal.


    According to educational theory (Mays and Taggart 1985:61) there are two views concerning the acquisition of knowledge:  1) the student-centered approach aimed at personal development and stimulation of creativity and 2) the subject-centered approach concerned with imparting specific knowledge.  While the latter is the primary aim of most college-level courses, the former world be more in line with the ideas of Kolb.  Coleman (1971:324) feels that simulations can provide a blending of the above aims by teaching specific content as well as reasoning and analytical skills.  The rationale for using such an approach is that students do not learn primarily from being taught, but through experiencing the consequences of actions and decisions.  Additional support for this approach comes from the work of Ellington, Addinell and Percival.  (1981).

    The model prison is a student-centered technique which is based on the following assumptions: 1) simulations are more useful for teaching processes than they are for conveying large amounts of specific knowledge, and 2) when used with particular study units, simulations are useful in stimulating discussions.  Simulations represent a joining of the theoretical and the practical, a synthesis that is difficult to capture in lectures or textbooks (Mays and Taggart 1985:61).

    Although simulations have been used in a wide variety of educational settings, they are not without their critics.  One of the main criticisms is that a simulation is still artificial.  It may oversimplify reality, and therefore may teach nothing about real life (Coleman 1971:325).

Introduction to the Process

    The design a prison concept, used in my Corrections class, is designed to be a creative simulation.  Students design the prisons themselves using information gained in class and from outside sources.  In developing both the internal and external structure of the prison, the students are developing a model which will later be subject to evaluation.

    The Corrections classes are composed mainly of junior and senior, criminal justice and sociology/corrections majors.  Since these students have a basic background in the field of criminal justice, they are ready for the applied steps of Kolb’s learning cycle.  Students get a chance to experiment actively by designing a prison based on abstract conceptualizations they have from prior classes etc., as well as, the concrete experience of having taken a tour of a correctional facility while in the Corrections class.  Finally, they use reflective observation when they are asked to make their presentations to the class and have their project critiqued and graded by both their peers and me.

Administration of the Process

    Students are put into groups (4-6) and given a basic outline for the project the first week of the semester.  The instructions are:

Current prisons have failed to rehabilitate inmates. Therefore, you have been assigned the task of designing a more effective prison.  Not only should you include in your project a drawing of your prison but also a list of the ten most important rules.
Your prison should deal with the following areas:
  1. General characteristics:  Type of prison (adult/juvenile), Location (urban/rural), Security levels (maximum, minimum), Design (high rise/farm), etc. 
  2. Characteristics of offender:  male/female, aged, retarded, youth etc
  3. Philosophy of punishment: social defense, punishment, rehabilitation, etc.
  4. Staff:  guards, counselors, administrators, etc.
  5. Services:  vocational, health care, education, religious, psychological, work releases, etc.
  6. Privilege system: the “house rules”, rewards, punishments, etc.
  7. Organizational style: inmate self-government, grievance procedure, ombudsman, management style (military, participative).
  8. Problem areas: handling of riots, homosexuality, inmate assaults, contraband, etc.
    Throughout the semester the groups are given class time to work on this segment of their project which we are covering in class (Ex. Philosophy of punishment, types of inmates, prison problems).  This allows the students to apply what they learned to their model.  There are no restrictions as to money, staff, or location.  This allows for the maximum amount of flexibility and creativity.  They are, however, cautioned to design a prison which is consistent with the world in which it is placed.  For example, if the institution exists in the present day, it needs to be consistent with our current laws and Constitution.  If it exists in the future, the students need to explain the structure of the society in which it is placed (ex. After a world war, or the invention of new technology).

Presentation and Evaluation of the Process

     Presentations are given the last two weeks of the semester.  Each group has one class period for their presentation and a class discussion.  Each student is graded individually according to the following areas (10 pts. Each):

  1. Introduction and conclusion 
  2. Body:  explanation of ideas, examples, use of visual aids
  3. Organization: development of points and orderly presentation
  4. Extemporaneous answers
  5. Attitude:  toward audience and subject
  6. Putting over ideas:  enthusiasm and rehearsal
  7. Voice and language:  pronunciation, rate, volume and grammar
  8. Physical delivery which includes issues of clarification, as well as, extemporaneous questions.  These are intended to get the students to think about the pros and cons of their simulated prison.  Examples of questions are
    • What is the philosophy of punishment of your prison? 
    • How will your prison address the problem of recidivism?  And
    • How will the community be involved with your prison?  The remaining 20% of their grade comes from their peers who evaluate each presenter on a 20 pt. scale (10 pts. possible for presentation and 10 pts. for delivery). 
    Over the years groups have developed various methods of presentation.  Some use an approach which places the class in the position of prisoners, townspeople or legislators.  Other groups have pretended that they are an investigative news team or a private building corporation.  One group, who designed a camp prison, came dressed in T-shirts on which were printed their staff positions.  Another group developed a video where they interviewed simulated community service workers at various points of their sentences.  While these prisons existed in the present day, futuristic prisons included one underwater, floating on an oil rig and on the moon!

   In conclusion, this project is a student-centered approach to learning which stresses creativity.  Students have become active participants rather than passive observers of the learning process.

The Results of the Process

    The implementation of this technique leads to the following observations:

  1. This project is useful for demonstrating and reinforcing concepts such as prisonization, reintegration, retribution, and cultural relativism. 
  2. This project makes prison more “personal”  and therefore may facilitate understanding, 
  3. Problem solving and decision making skills learned by doing this project can be transferred to other learning and/or employment situations. 
  4. The students are able to be creative, something that is usually lacking in education beyond grade school. 
  5. The students develop noncognitive skills (such as communication and interpersonal relations) and attitudes (such as cooperation and interpersonal relations) and attitudes (such as cooperation and open-mindedness) by working in a group. 
  6. Students are more actively involved in the learning process. 
  7. While some competition may develop within and between groups, this is not the main intent of the project. 
  8. Students learn to integrate concepts from other disciplines, for example, behavior modification from psychology. 
  9. Since these students are from both the sociology and criminal justice departments, they are able to share ideas and learn how  course information often overlaps. 
  10. The students learn to develop clear and concise ideas so they don’t contradict themselves in their presentations. 
  11. The teacher plays the role of mentor, by asking leading questions, and judge, by giving grades. 
  12. This project is entirely under the control of the group with each student having input into the final presentation.

    Based on over 15 years experience with this project, the following suggestions may also be helpful. 

  1. Make sure the students have time in class to work on their project.  This is especially true for commuting students. 
  2. Take attendance on the days the groups meet in class to insure that everyone has participated.  (I took one point off of their grade, based on 100 pts., for each absence). 
  3. Allow classmates to evaluate each presenter individually.  This insured that the entire class stayed involved. 
  4. Require the groups to have some type of visualization (model, slides, overhead transparencies or poster) so the audience can visualize the prison. 
  5. Try to minimize competition so students will not get into a situation of peer intimidation to improve their grade and 
  6. Do not require a report, since this project is designed to improve critical thinking and oral presentation skills.
    It is difficult to evaluate the “success” of a project of this type.  I have had a student who was going to veterinary school be able to eliminate a required speech class because she had made an oral presentation in my class.  Other students have taken this class primarily to do a prison project.  I have had a few students who felt they would be too nervous to make a presentation gain self-confidence.  Other students have had to critically reevaluate their often-stereotypical opinions of prisons.  The final measure, however, is a student/citizen/employee who can communicate orally and evaluate critically what they see, hear and read. 

    Powerpoint is useful in teaching about prisons.  Attached is a Powerpoint presentation which can serve as an example of how the simulation has been used in my classes.  Please note that the Powerpoint files should be requested using a high-speed Internet connection only.  

     Click here for the Powerpoint (.ppt) file:


Coleman, James. 1971. “Learning Through Games.”  In E. Avedon and B. Sutton-Smith  (Eds.), The Study of Games. Pp. 322-325. New York: Wiley.

Ellington, Henry, Addinall, Eric, and Percival, Fred. 1981. Games and Simulations in Science Education. London: Kogan Page, Ltd. 

Gish, Glen, L. 1979. “The Learning Cycle.”  Synergist 8, pp. 2-6.

Mays, Larry G. and William A. Taggart. 1985. “Teaching Through the Use of Games and Simulations,” American Journal of Criminal Justice X, pp. 55-74.

©Copyright 2005 by the North Carolina Sociological Association

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