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Field-based Prison Reflection

The Unknown's picture

            “Ask me about my experience here,” Georgina responding to our weekly icebreaker questions. I was surprised at how often womyn spoke about such complex and personal issues. I felt so uncomfortable. Why was I there? I should not have the “white-savior complex” yet I have means and almost all of these womyn’s rights have been stripped away. I couldn't help but wonder about the stressful and dangerous atmosphere of prison. What violence was inflicted upone these womyn?

            How could we just talk when Caroline just told me a story about when she was “in-between” homes. How is it fair that all of her rights and sense of security is stripped away even if she “committed a crime?”

            It was so difficult to convince myself to give up many of my rights to “submit” in many ways to an oppressive system. The power dynamics seemed so large and difficult to overcome. I was free, I could leave, I am white, I am wealthy. One day when we wee leaving one of the womyn said, “I wish I could go with you.” There was a part of me that wanted to challenge to correctional officers when they yelled at the womyn or did not send out the call list on time, but I knew that I had to submit to greater structures to continue the program.

I was often conflicted between correcting womyn when they struggled to understand gender labeling or other complex topics. How do we move people out of a place of being stuck with one idea or opinion?

            “Ask me about the other side,” Sarah said. The womyn seemed to have little control of their mobility, schedules, and the activities they participated in. I wanted to ask her about her life. I wanted to incorporate complicated and traumatic aspects of people lives into the conversation, but how? 

The correctional officers generally seemed to assume the worst in the incarcerated people. On several occasions, the womyn inside were described to us as “dangerous.” The correctional officers had guns and other weapons.

            How could prison possibly be beneficial for everyone?

            “Ask me about my kids,” Yolanda commented.

            “If you don’t need it then yeah. But if you need it, you don’t deserve to be here.” One class four of the womyn who were normally in class had been released.

            “Just being in this type of environment is horrible.” One of the ways the womyn seemed to escape was through reading about alternative narratives, though many including those about refugees and the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina were also traumatic. 

            “They wanted to bring them down. That’s what they do to us.” Several times the correctional officer would walk into our room and do count, sometimes more than once.

I wanted to escape from the moment I walked through the prison doors and was patted down. I felt complicit in preserving the racial and social hierarchies in prison.

            “Try being in the hole for 30 days. I told them I was going to hang myself by the showerhead.” Did everyone else here what she just said?

            “Being a mother and being here is not easy.” So many of the womyn had children and many expressed unease about how their children were being looked after when they were not in prison.

            “The longest sixteen months of my life.”

            “She says she’s good. She said she’s going to the halfway house.”

            “I don’t wish this on my worst enemy. To be in jail.”

            The different womyn seemed to resist and accept social structures, such as racism and classicism that led to their imprisonment, as well as personal decisions.

            “These femelles aren’t worrying about anything but themselves.”

            “I haven’t seen them in a year.”

            “[Gloria] didn’t do it and she got straight life without parole.”

            “If you need it then yeah. But if you don’t need it, you don’t deserve to be here.”

            We had agreed from the beginning that we were not trying to teach or educate the people inside.

            Caroline prefaced the text we were about to read and discuss with, “there’s some violence in here.”

            “We are around that all the time.”

            I’ve never felt so restricted and under surveillance in my life. I felt powerless, unable to question any of the guard’s actions because I did not want jeopardize the program. We were patted down, knowing that as an upper-class white womyn the likelihood of ever being escorted through the sliding doors by policemen was so slim. I wanted to tear down the walls, destroy an institution where uniforms were used to categorize “other.”      

            When to speak, when to correct, and when to listen. When could I not understand? Sometimes I felt like I said too little and not enough at the same time. I felt so distant from the womyn who stayed inside after we left. Each time I was in that room, the most terrifying thoughts would drown out many layers of comfort. What did we not see in prison?

            “These people are crazy. They try to take your life away.”

            I was constantly conflicted between incorporating new kinds of voices and the notion of maintaining a certain level of “control” in the classroom. I was torn between my desire to facilitate the womyn’s engagement with the texts and also giving the womyn space to express themselves. 

            Why did some moments feel like the weight of all the misunderstandings had fallen onto the silence between you and someone you wanted to pull out of all the racial, gendered, sexual, systematic abuse that many are experiencing and have experienced? 

            We weren’t there to teach, but then why was I there? We had access to resources, such as coloring supplies, news, and therefore our visits were justified because we were “disseminating information,” “trying to “help,” “work with” and learn from incarcerated people.

            Community engagement was the topic of discussion one week and we brought in an article about an ex-convict. This week, we read an article about someone who had been convicted of a crime and who later took part in the Inside-Out program. Upon release, the man continued to work in Philadelphia to other men who were in similar situations.

Last week we were talking about community engagement and activism in “Stories about the World, Stories about Us.”  We brought up whether or not people thought a sense of belonging was necessary in a community. Reflecting on this topic, I wonder still if any of them have ever been a part of a community? How was this and some of our other questions prescriptive or assume to much?

Someone asked the question, “Is there a community in prison?”

            Another person asserted that it was important to make the best out of the community one lives in. Yet the womyn were paid extremely low wages and grew up in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

` Womyn constantly spoke about other programs they were in such as the inside-out program. One womyn said she searched for programs that helped her become a “good citizen. 

            One womyn brought up the effectiveness of power in numbers and the importance of voice in protesting. She gave an example of the effectiveness of working together and creating alliances even in prisons. One womyn she knew continued to be put in the hole because she was having seizures.

            Many of the womyn showed their knowledge through reading articulately or/and relating personal past events to the readings.

            One day we brought in an article about the pope’s visit and one of the womyn’s case’s was misrepresented and depicted in a violent and vicious way. I was so angry that she had no agency over her decisions. The womyn’s every move was controlled and monitored. When rules were broken, going to the hole was a common punishment.