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IU Southeast’s Jennifer Ortiz lends expertise to A&E documentary

Mar. 9, 2016

IU Southeast’s Jennifer Ortiz, visiting professor of criminal justice, will be featured in the upcoming docuseries, “60 Days In,” which airs beginning March 10 on A&E.

Also appearing is Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel, an alumnus of IU Southeast.

jennifer ortiz

Ortiz is an innovator with experience on the New York Sentencing Commission with a broader vision of what criminal justice can be, both as a career and as a teaching discipline. | PHOTO BY IU SOUTHEAST

The show documents a unique initiative in which individuals went undercover in the Michael L. Becher Adult Correction Complex in Jeffersonville, Ind. for 60 days, in order to gain information that will help Noel’s team improve conditions and services at the facility.

Ortiz helped Sheriff Noel debrief the undercover inmates upon their “release.”

Out of the box

“60 Days In” came about when Noel, having attracted regional media attention through a series of operations to combat the local drug trade, met with representatives of a production company to explore the idea of an undercover project inside the Clark County complex. Ordinarily, police officers would be used, but none could be spared for the length of time in question. The idea to use volunteers -- "civilians" -- was a mutual brainstorm, according to Noel.

He added that this is the first time this technique has been tried.

“It’s very out of the box,” he said.

Noel contacted Joe Grant, a former colleague from law enforcement and now lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at IU Southeast. Noel wanted a broad criminological perspective, to make sure that he was asking all the right questions, and not omitting any questions that might provide useful information. Grant suggested that Ortiz provide that perspective.

She arrived at the agreed-upon location, entered an interrogation room and found herself in the middle of a documentary.

“I knew the sheriff had planted people in jail and wanted to interview them, but nobody told me it was a TV show,” she said. “I walked into the room, there were cameras and lights and a production crew and a sound guy -- it’s a good thing I dressed nice because I was going to be on national TV.”

The sheriff explained the need for discretion, and the two got down to the business of interviewing some of the individuals who had spent two months behind bars. The volunteers described what they saw, heard and did while on the inside.

Show real life

Ortiz was the perfect choice for the assignment: an innovator with experience on the New York Sentencing Commission and a broader vision of what criminal justice can be, both as a career and as a teaching discipline.

Beyond that, she had strong personal drive to improve the real-life world of criminal justice.

A native of New York City, Ortiz grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, witnessing first-hand the detrimental effects of the criminal justice system. Nearly every male in her family and inner circle was involved in gangs or serving sentences in correctional facilities, she said.

“I witnessed what they experienced and knew I had to fight for them and others like them,” she said.

She devoted herself to education, attending college at night and on weekends while working a 40-hour week (an experience that bonds her to nontraditional students to this day). Initially drawn to research, she came to see that she could have a greater impact through teaching.

“I want to show my students real life,” she said. “A lot of students come in with perceptions from TV. Crime shows are great, but they provide a lot of misinformation. They see a show like CSI, and don’t realize that you can’t just become a forensics specialist, you start out as a police officer, and work your way up into that role.”

To that end, at her previous institution, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, N.Y. she invited police officers, an inspector general, a commissioner of corrections and even a formerly incarcerated person to speak to her classes.

“What I try to do is to get the students to view the people they deal with as human beings rather than just bodies and numbers.”

Noel’s perspective is, like that of Ortiz, rooted in personal experience. After 17 years with the Indiana State Police, he was ready for new challenges. He attended IU Southeast and graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in General Studies, with minors in criminal justice and supervision. He credits the program with helping him to look at current practices from a different point of view.

“We can’t keep just housing bodies,” he said. “We need to go beyond that, and spark an interest in inmates to not want to come back.”

Improving conditions and procedures, cleaning up crime within and around the facility, and offering constructive programming are all part of that vision. And all benefit from operations like that profiled in “60 Days In.”

“We learned a lot,” he said.

A broader perspective

While the data originating from the show belongs to the production company, Ortiz has found the experience extremely useful as a source of examples in her corrections course. She would like to see the curriculum expanded to bring sociology and anthropology to bear, as well as critical criminology, an approach that addresses the social context of criminal activity and the assumptions underlying corrections.

The wider view also applies to career opportunities.

“Criminal justice is one of the fields in which you can get a four-year degree and get a job,” she said, listing stenographer, bailiff and researcher as vital and rewarding positions that often get overlooked since many programs focus only on the policing aspect.

Wherever they choose to concentrate their energy, Ortiz urges students to broaden their perspective on what criminal justice actually means.

“The good thing for criminal justice majors is, we’re always going to have crime,” she said.

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