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Fall 2014
belize
Beautiful Belize

Oral history project at Belize Central Prison does have upsides

How does this sound: earn college credit for touring Mayan ruins, ziplining, even visiting a howler monkey sanctuary?  What if it also meant going to prison in Belize?

IMG_1047That was the prospect faced by a number of UIndy Greyhounds who took part in a 2014 Spring Term trip. (Spring Term courses are creative, innovative, and multidisciplinary, with learning experiences not available during the regular semesters.)

Kevin Whiteacre, associate professor of criminal justice and sociology, and Amanda Miller, assistant professor of social sciences, devised a class called The Big House Abroad: Oral History in Belize’s Central Prison, and 12 students signed on.

Before leaving for Belize, a country perched on the Caribbean coast and bordering Mexico and Guatemala, the students learned about oral histories, interviewing techniques, and the importance of conducting qualitative research.

But . . . why?

In 2002, the government of Belize turned control of the country’s prison system over to the Kolbe Foundation, a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization with the motto “Rehabilitating Inmates to Become Citizens.”

Since that time the Foundation has worked to increase safety, decrease the number of escapes, and improve overall prison care throughout the country.

As a social scientist, Dr. Whiteacre believes that it is important to record the history of the prison and document the reforms that have taken place since the Kolbe Foundation took over.

And so, for ten days the students worked to obtain oral histories of staff members at the Belize Central Prison—sometimes referred to as the “Hattieville Ramada”—in Hattieville. After coming home, the students transcribed the interviews they had conducted.


“It was great to get inside the prison. People have such inaccurate views of what prisons are and the type of people that are in prison.”
– Dr. Whiteacre


Olivia Lengacher, from Washington, Ind., is a student in UIndy’s Master of Occupational Therapy program. She decided to travel to Belize because she was interested in the work that they were going to be doing there.

“I thought that getting the opportunity to speak with the individuals from the prison,” Olivia says, “to hear their stories, and to get a feel for their culture, would be very important.”

While they were in Belize, Dr. Whiteacre and his team collected 36 oral histories from the staff members at the prison. He will return to Belize in May with a new team to conduct interviews with the female inmates at the prison.

Back to the big house?

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Olivia would be happy to return to Belize and continue the work that she helped begin, she says.

“I most definitely would go back to continue the research. I think what Dr. Whiteacre is doing is beneficial to so many people. There are so many voices and experiences that need to be heard, and I am so lucky to have been a part of the work being done.”

While the UIndy team worked hard to obtain the oral histories of the prison staff, they also spent time exploring the countryside of Belize. Students had the opportunity to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal and other Mayan ruins. The team also ziplined through the rainforest and visited a howler monkey sanctuary.

“Belize is a beautiful country with beautiful people,” Olivia says, “and I would love to do some type of work there again! I learned a lot about the culture of Belize, and also a lot about myself.”

Dr. Whiteacre hopes to continue collecting oral histories over the next several years and interview the male inmate population at the prison. He feels that the United States could learn something from Belize about prison reform.

“The Belize prison has their own farm and the prisoners grow all of their own food,” he says. “Belize has made great strides in creating a ‘green’ prison system and America could learn a lot from them.”

The project may seem daunting, but the majority of the students came to love the experience.

Published for posterity

IMG_1056Claire Gallman, a sophomore Psychology/Pre-OT major from Greenwood, Ind., enjoyed conducting the interviews and the challenge of transcribing them.

“I really enjoyed hearing all of the different stories of the prison workers because they all came from different backgrounds and cultures,” she says. “It was really cool to be able to connect with them and have them tell you about themselves.”

The hope is that once the project is completed, the oral histories will be published in Belize so that these valuable stories will be remembered and scholars can continue to learn from them.

—Steven Freck ’16

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