Blazing a trail

Sycamore who was the Indiana Department of Corrections’ first paid summer intern wowed her supervisors. “She has a great future,” according to the internship coordinator.

Last summer, Viridiana “Vivi” Benitez awoke at the break of dawn every day to go to prison.

She earned glowing reviews from supervisors at the Indiana Department of Corrections — and overwhelmed the criminology and criminal justice department with pride.

Viridiana Benitez

“While we have had interns for the (Indiana Department of Corrections) before, this is the first student that went through the paid internship for IDOC, as this is new for them,” said Travis Behem, instructor of criminology.

Benitez, who hails from Indianapolis, says her professors’ stories about working in corrections drew her to the field. When the opportunity to intern with the DOC presented itself, Benitez did not hesitate.

Her abilities and work ethic made a huge impact on her instructors and the people she worked with, and Benitez never viewed her gender as an issue in the male-dominated environment.

“There were plenty of women. The central office all the way down to facilities were women — what I didn’t see were minorities,” Benitez said. “The population of the inmates, they were diverse. There was no problem there.”

In 2009, Frank DiMarino, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Kaplan University, wrote in a story for CorrectionsOne that, nationally, a 29 percent minority correctional workforce was managing a 60 percent minority incarcerated population. Those numbers are now 37 percent from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016 report and 59 percent from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2013 data.

While the racial disparity between corrections and incarcerated persons still exists, the gap is narrowing. Meeting these diversity goals are both socially necessary and beneficial for corrections, DiMarino explained, as inmates who can identify with someone on staff may be more cooperative and feel more understood, both of which aid rehabilitation.

While interning for the IDOC, Benitez worked at the Central Office, the Indiana Women’s Prison, and the Indianapolis Re-Entry Educational Facility before ending her internship back where she started.

“She represented ISU extremely well,” said internship coordinator Gary Hartsock, adding that Benitez was rated “outstanding” in all areas and received extra comments on her personality, her willingness to learn and her work ethic. “I think it is extremely important as a woman and minority to have had this opportunity in what traditionally has been a male-dominated world. She has a great future.”

According to Hartsock, IDOC has made a concentrated effort in the last few years to recruit and promote minorities and women, especially under the department’s recently retired commissioner and Indiana State alumnus Bruce Lemmon.

Benitez agrees that it would be beneficial to diversify prison staff, especially to break through language barriers. Benitez also understands that there is a deep distrust among minorities and the criminal justice system that can discourage people from taking those jobs.

“In order to create that trust, the trust has to be mutual,” she said.

Benitez was overjoyed for the experiential opportunity and, of course, for the fact that it was paid. She learned to always keep her guard up, but thankfully she didn’t have to learn through experience.

“So when I found this, I would not let it go. I was definitely making an impression so I could get the hands-on experience and get paid for working,” she said. “I didn’t think the prison facilities were scary, at first I didn’t know what to expect but once there they too were nice. I would tell the staff it almost seemed like they were not criminals, and for this it was important for staff to keep their guard up and never forget where they are (in a prison).”

Benitez hopes to work at the federal level some day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *