Entering San Quentin, the largest male death row prison in the United States is a definite highlight for any criminology student. For former criminology student and now Juris Doctor student Pamoda Rupasinghe walking into San Quentin was like leaving the real word, and entering a micro community.
“We fell into the footsteps of guards and prisoners as we heard both of their perspectives. Interestingly enough, none of the perspectives were the same,” she said.
“And although the experience was incredible, I can’t help but think how much of it was the raw truth, and not the sanitised version that the prison staff wanted us to hear.”
She says the prisoners that spoke to her study tour group about their experiences inside San Quentin spoke only about the positives of the prison and how it focuses on the rehabilitation aspects of incarceration and how it has many support services. It was only when students asked about hope did they realise how much prisoners completely blamed themselves while living in a society that didn’t favour them. Students were given the opportunity to hear prisoners' stories, from one human to another. She walked and talked with a prisoner who had a photo of his family in his back pocket.
“He showed me his wife and kids and told me about how tensions were high in his family, but that didn’t make him any less excited to be able to given the chance to call home again,” Pamoda said.
“There is an underlying thread of hope in these people. To be given a second chance. They are human, which I feel as if a lot of people tend to forget. Many of them are members of marginalised populations who were unaware of their rights or acting in relation to their circumstances as being marginalised.”
Selected as part of a small group to travel to San Francisco for the Comparative Criminology Study Tour, Pamoda and the group were able to talk with the prisoners who floated around the courtyard freely. The students were given countless opportunities to speak and listen to various members of society who interact with the criminal justice system, such as those who were experiencing homelessness, local police, LGBTIQ+ members, FBI and incarcerated criminals.
“The hands-on experience truly allowed me to immerse myself in the culture of crime in the United States and compare it to the systems integrated in Australia,” Pamoda said.
Crime doesn’t typically happen [sitting in a classroom] and it does not effectively represent how all the features of the justice system interact with each other.
More broadly, she says there is a common misconception about the study of criminology. These misconceptions include things like the confusion between criminology and forensics.
“I often still hear it when I speak to friends and family about what I am studying,” she said.
“I have to explain that we are the ones who collect and explore why crimes are committed, investigate the similarities and differences between crime throughout culture and dive into the prevention and punishment of crime,” she said.
She says often we forget that others are just as human as we are, but are experiencing different pressures that increase their susceptibility to crime. For example, those experiencing homelessness are often criminalised for actions of survival that are a staple part of our day to day habits. This could be part of the ever-growing phenomenon of fearing marginalised populations and potential reporting biases and misrepresentations from the mass media.
“It is so easy for one to sit in front of the TV and be subjected to skewed views that are often presented to support a different agenda or are a result of production pressures,” she said.
Criminology has allowed her to think more openly about her study options and how important it is to project a perspective when someone else does not have the means to, “I chose criminology because it's not limited to one idea but instead provides a basis to adapt other ideas to ever-changing society.”
In many ways, this is why I began studying Criminology at Monash University. It allowed me to make my own observations about the state of society and the criminal justice system and start a discussion with those who had the same queries as me.
Pamoda will be starting her Juris Doctor degree in the next month, as she sees many aspects of the law that need to be constantly re-evaluated, but it is no surprise that members of marginalised populations have limited access to justice such as legal assistance and a fair hearing. Members of this population tend to have competing needs that can escalate drastically without services accessible to successfully deal with them.
“I would not have ever considered working in a legal field without the influence of criminology. Combined with a major of psychology, criminology has propelled me into the direction of helping others by standing up for them.”