How Going to Jail Helped One Akins Student Find Her Calling

Most schools tell students to stay out of jail, but one Austin school sends some of its students there once a week to learn how to become correctional officers.

By Kate McGeeJanuary 6, 2016 9:30 am, ,

This story originally appeared on KUT

Standing in her criminal justice class at Akins High School, 18-year-old senior Lauren Ochoa is wearing BDUs – or tactical training pants – boots that lace up to the shin, a black shirt and a black jacket. The jacket says CSI on the back in gold letters: Correctional Service Intern.

Ochoa is one of nine students at Akins High School heading to the Travis County Correctional Facility in Del Valle.

Once a week they get on a bus and go to the jail. There, students learn what it’s like working with inmates: serving food, monitoring inmates when they’re allowed out of their cells and even preventing fights.

“So when I first started I was scared,” she says. “I was terrified. I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to yell at me, they’re going to talk to me, they’re going to say dirty things.’”

Now, she gets excited to go every week. Since she’s started, she’s been all over the facility – the clinic, the female-only Building 3, general population in Building 1 and the newly built Building 12, which those around the facility call “Westlake.”

At the end of the school year, Ochoa will have a certification that will let her work as a security coordinator with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, a step below correctional officer. She can become an officer at 21, when she’s old enough to carry a weapon. But Ochoa wants to be a detective. She sees this as a step toward that goal.

On this day, Ochoa is going to maximum, which houses inmates who have had disciplinary problems since they entered jail.

“In maximum I try not to look at them because if I do, they start acting out,” she says. “If they say ‘Hi’ to me I’ll say hi back, I’m not going to be rude. They’re people, too.”

Travis County doesn’t allow any audio or video recording inside the jail. To get between buildings, you walk on sidewalks with fences on either side and overhead. Inside the cinderblock building, many of the walls are covered in murals painted by the inmates. Each area has a control room where officers sit and watch the inmates. On each side there are windows that look out on a long hallway of cells. Inmates mingle in the day room playing games and talking. Ochoa says the worst part about the jail couldn’t be documented, recording equipment or not: the smell.

“It really stinks. I can go home and I can take off my uniform and I can smell it real fast and I can still smell the jail. You’ll never smell smells like that until you go to jail,” she says.

But this isn’t her first exposure to a jail. Like many students in the CSI program, she has family in prison.

“Ever since I was little I had two sides in my family. I had the good side and the bad side, and I wanted to be on the good side,” Ochoa says. “I figured if I wasn’t on the good side then I’ll end up being on the bad side. So I decided to take this on.”

Her father was in prison in Tennessee. He’s on parole now. Her stepfather is in prison in Texas. She’s spent years writing them letters and visiting them.

“It hurts me a lot, you know. The other day I was crying to my mom about it and she was like, ‘Why are you in this internship? Because you want to see how your dad’s living so you can hurt yourself, or do you want to make something of yourself?’ I don’t want to just work in a fast food restaurant,” she says. “I want something better.”

Robyn Katz runs the criminal justice program at Akins High School. She says a career in corrections appeals to a lot of these students.

“It’s county employment, so the benefits are phenomenal. Pension for a correctional officer is incredible, also. The healthcare benefits are amazing,” Katz says. “I have two students in this internship who have children. And they’re looking to be able to have a career where they’re able to support their family and this would be a great career for that.”

Not everyone loves that Ochoa is spending time in the jail, she says.

“Especially my dads,” she says. “They’ve been there, they’ve been in the inmate shoes and they’ve seen when there’s a new person on post, and they don’t like it.”

But the internship has helped her understand why guards treat inmates a certain way, and it has helped change how she thinks about herself.

“I thought I was never good at anything. But this – I love criminal justice. I’ve always been interested in it, the criminals. And I guess because of my fathers and some of my family, because they are criminals,” she says. “But the other half is the people who protect and serve the law.”

Lauren and her classmates spend half a day at the jail before heading back to school. She starts a new semester today and will head back to the jails this week. This semester, she and the rest of the Correctional Service Interns will learn about female inmates, how to handle prison riots and legal issues in prisons.