As far back as Dr. Dorothy McClellan can remember,
she had questions - haunting questions; the kind of questions that
rise from the ashes of injustice and cry out for answers.
As the daughter of European immigrants growing up among World War
II refugees in Philadelphia, her earliest memories of adult conversation
still echo with words like ‘arrest,’ ‘prison camp,’
‘inmate number,’ and ‘execution.’
Pursuing her education at Temple University in the heart of an African
American ghetto during the tumultuous sixties added to the backdrop
of her evolving commitment to the cause of justice.
When it came time for her internship to complete her graduate degree
in counseling psychology, a professor introduced her to a friend
named Sam. Sam asked if she would consider working with male prisoners.
No woman had ever worked inside a cellblock in New York State, and
he felt it was time. He believed the most troubled prisoners needed
to talk about their feelings in a professional setting. They would
open up to a woman, he assured her.
Acting on her belief, “If the door opens, walk through,”
McClellan agreed. In “Unsentimental Journey,” her autobiography
published in the September 2002 issue of Women & Criminal Justice,
McClellan wrote of her experiences in the F1 Cellblock.
Day One. “A guard pounded on the door; it
finally opened and I entered. A tall young man, the chief psychologist,
took one look at me and snarled, ‘Never wear a skirt again...
Roll up your sleeves and get to work.’ The smell of sweat
and cigarette smoke was overwhelming. Down the long tier of
cells I saw a large black man carrying an equally large black
man in his arms... The one being carried was curled in a fetal
position... and was now being deposited on the floor of the
unit’s ancient shower stall. The psychologist and inmate
counseling aids slapped his face... to coax him out of his catatonic
trance. They finally turned to me and said, ‘Give it a
try’... The giant’s frame was frozen in an arc,
his eyes tightly shut. I whispered in his ear, ‘My name
is Dorothy. This is my first day here. I’m scared too.’
Sam was right. It didn’t matter what I said. The surprise
of hearing a woman’s voice in this all-male society worked
its magic. He peeked to look at me... and his frame began to
relax. The others witnessed the transformation... I had survived
my first crisis.”
McClellan worked in the Crisis Intervention
Unit at Coxsackie for the next two years and considers them the
richest professional years of her life. After working in the “belly
of the beast,” as the inmates called it, McClellan was ready
“to study the whole animal” and went on to earn a master’s
degree and doctorate in criminal justice from the Rockefeller College
of Public Affairs and Public Policy at the State University of New
York. She then spent two cold winter semesters in Moscow, researching
Soviet upbringing and juvenile delinquency. When McClellan began
teaching at A&M-Corpus Christi in 1987, she was already a force
to be reckoned with in the criminal justice world.
McClellan has continued her collaborative work with colleagues in
Russia, Germany and South Africa, with more recent travels to Paris
and Budapest. She enriches the classroom experience by planning
prison field trips, bringing in guest lecturers and overseeing internships
of numerous students within the community. Through the University
Innocence Project, McClellan and her students work with civil rights
attorney Christopher Gale, along with defendants and their families
to overturn wrongful verdicts.
Today, it would be difficult to find a more devoted and accomplished
teacher and scholar than McClellan. She was named a Piper Professor
in 2002, distinguishing her as one of the top 10 university professors
in Texas. As a 2002-2003 Fulbright Scholar to Croatia, McClellan
is now serving in a region of the world desperately in need of her
talents and expertise.
On the eve of her departure to Croatia, McClellan wondered what
experiences might await her as she seeks to bring “social
scientific analyses to bear on the justice issues Croatians face
as they emerge from a decade of war, suffering, and devastation.”
One can be sure, McClellan’s influence in Croatia will be
no less remarkable than her influence in every realm where a door
has opened, and she has chosen to walk through.