Students gaze up at the empty cells in the Wyoming Frontier Prison, a now-closed state penitentiary. The students are members of Joy Tegtman’s criminology class at Moffat County High School.

Courtesy photo

Students gaze up at the empty cells in the Wyoming Frontier Prison, a now-closed state penitentiary. The students are members of Joy Tegtman’s criminology class at Moffat County High School.

Moffat County High School students visit Wyoming prison

— It was the late 1980s when Joy Tegtman saw it for the first time — a series of pale, beige buildings, squatting plain and unassuming in a field south of Interstate 80 in Rawlins, Wyo.

But it was the stories that came from inside the Wyoming State Penitentiary that touched her and moved her to take a class of students back there every semester.

On her first visit, she found herself talking to a 17-year-old boy who was in prison for life for murdering his stepmother and her two children.

“It was a real eye-opener,” she said. “This boy was like any other kid. For him to be such a monster, it amazed me. He didn’t look or act like a monster, but he was.”

Since that day, the concept of life in prison has influenced Tegtman’s teaching career.

For two periods a day at Moffat County High School, she teaches criminology class, a sociological study of crime and the people who commit it.

For the past six years, Tegtman has taken each class on a daylong field trip to Rawlins to visit the old and the new Wyoming penitentiaries.

This fall, two groups took the trip Nov. 23 and 30.

“More than two million Americans are in prison right now,” Tegtman said. “I think everybody should go to prison. Everyone should see what it’s like to live there.”

November’s field trip began with a visit to what is now called the Wyoming Frontier Prison, the original state facility that opened in 1901.

Her second criminology class said conditions in the old prison were atrocious.

“It was so cold in there,” student Kyle Boss said. “There was no privacy at all. We learned how people used to try to get locked in solitary confinement because it was the warmest part of the building.”

Several of the students had the opportunity to be locked in a jail cell or lie on one of the cots as they heard tales of the violence and atrocities that took place in the prison.

That facility closed in 1981 and was replaced by the Wyoming State Penitentiary that still is used today.

When the students walked into the new building, they were shocked by what they saw.

“In the new prison they had everything they wanted,” Nina Falcon said.

Prisoners had their own individual televisions, access to basketball courts and a library.

It was the latter that struck many of the students as a positive message in the chaos of incarceration.

“It’s cool that they have a chance at education that many of them never had before,” Falcon said.

In addition to a tour, the students sat and listened as two inmates told their stories.

One of the presentations came from a young man who had been in prison for 19 years. He began his sentence at age 15.

“He was just a young boy,” Tegtman said. “He had been abused sexually, mentally and physically. I had sympathy for him. I don’t think we should be putting children in jail.”

But she said the trip didn’t have a political purpose, nor was it meant to scare students straight.

She hoped her students would learn about the justice system and see what happens to criminals after they leave the courtroom.

“I just want them to have the experience,” Tegtman said. “There’s just too many people in this country in there. I just want my students to be as educated as possible.”

When senior Jenn Collier first walked into the new state prison, she said she saw what could be her future if she took the wrong path.

“I need to be good,” was her first thought.

Collier is Tegtman’s fourth-hour student aid. During a free period Thursday, she recalled memories from the trip, which she has taken several times.

While the students only interacted with minimum-security, well-behaved prisoners, they walked by groups of hardened criminals.

Collier remembers the men pressed up against the glass, making rude gestures and yelling at the students walking by. It reminded her about the harsh consequences of making the wrong decisions in life.

“It’s real,” Collier said. “It’s not just statistics. It can really happen to people.”

On her first visit, she found herself talking to a 17-year-old boy who was in prison for life for murdering his stepmother and her two children.

“It was a real eye-opener,” she said. “This boy was like any other kid. For him to be such a monster, it amazed me. He didn’t look or act like a monster, but he was.”

Since that day, the concept of life in prison has influenced Tegtman’s teaching career.

For two periods a day at Moffat County High School, she teaches criminology class, a sociological study of crime and the people who commit it.

For the past six years, Tegtman has taken each class on a daylong field trip to Rawlins to visit the old and the new Wyoming penitentiaries.

This fall, two groups took the trip Nov. 23 and 30.

“More than two million Americans are in prison right now,” Tegtman said. “I think everybody should go to prison. Everyone should see what it’s like to live there.”

November’s field trip began with a visit to what is now called the Wyoming Frontier Prison, the original state facility that opened in 1901.

Her second criminology class said conditions in the old prison were atrocious.

“It was so cold in there,” student Kyle Boss said. “There was no privacy at all. We learned how people used to try to get locked in solitary confinement because it was the warmest part of the building.”

Several of the students had the opportunity to be locked in a jail cell or lie on one of the cots as they heard tales of the violence and atrocities that took place in the prison.

That facility closed in 1981 and was replaced by the Wyoming State Penitentiary that still is used today.

When the students walked into the new building, they were shocked by what they saw.

“In the new prison they had everything they wanted,” Nina Falcon said.

Prisoners had their own individual televisions, access to basketball courts and a library.

It was the latter that struck many of the students as a positive message in the chaos of incarceration.

“It’s cool that they have a chance at education that many of them never had before,” Falcon said.

In addition to a tour, the students sat and listened as two inmates told their stories.

One of the presentations came from a young man who had been in prison for 19 years. He began his sentence at age 15.

“He was just a young boy,” Tegtman said. “He had been abused sexually, mentally and physically. I had sympathy for him. I don’t think we should be putting children in jail.”

But she said the trip didn’t have a political purpose, nor was it meant to scare students straight.

She hoped her students would learn about the justice system and see what happens to criminals after they leave the courtroom.

“I just want them to have the experience,” Tegtman said. “There’s just too many people in this country in there. I just want my students to be as educated as possible.”

When senior Jenn Collier first walked into the new state prison, she said she saw what could be her future if she took the wrong path.

“I need to be good,” was her first thought.

Collier is Tegtman’s fourth-hour student aid. During a free period Thursday, she recalled memories from the trip, which she has taken several times.

While the students only interacted with minimum-security, well-behaved prisoners, they walked by groups of hardened criminals.

Collier remembers the men pressed up against the glass, making rude gestures and yelling at the students walking by. It reminded her about the harsh consequences of making the wrong decisions in life.

“It’s real,” Collier said. “It’s not just statistics. It can really happen to people.”

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