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final prison reflection

rb.richx's picture

there are several moments in the prison engrained into my mind. these memories, while having come from just this semester, don’t feel fresh; the stagnancy that overwhelmed me upon walking into the lobby – and to the classroom and back – each thursday made sure that every moment felt like a vague memory even as i experienced it.

some of the moments were better than others. my initial reaction to the prompt of this paper – “begin with a 1-p. description of one important (vivid, definitive, symbolic?) experience that really stood out to you during our time there” – was to focus on a moment that was one of the more positive ones. the time spent with the incarcerated folks was not bad for me in and of itself, i don’t think, and so i thought i would represent that.

instead, i chose something that informed more of the latter half of the prompt specifically – “a story that speaks to the nature of what you experienced” – to speak on that very dual nature.

i know some of the horrors that go on within prisons. i don’t know them beyond reports and journalistic accounts, generally speaking, and even those make me feel… faint in some way. for our tour, i thought that i was at least somewhat prepared in the sense that i already knew the horrors. but i knew that this is specifically a women’s facility, one overcrowded but not to the stakes as those in california, and one with low security. maybe that knowledge subconsciously had me thinking this prison was different in some way, despite logically knowing that it isn’t. maybe it was actually being there to hear it and witness it in a way that i couldn’t compartmentalize and separate myself from it. i don’t know. but the experiences of the tour were extremely disconcerting for me.

there was no single moment of the tour that set me off, but so quickly was i able to forget much of what was said. i can’t forget what i saw, but what was said. i don’t know. i don’t know that i could process it all in those moments. i can hear, though, a particular moment with the major and a guard, smiling and laughing about the ease of bringing women down without laying a hand on them because of a change in the pepper spray’s formula. the whole thing was upsetting to me, but i made myself stick with it until we finished.

i drove us – myself, @abby rose, and @the unknown – back after the tour, unable to stay for the class. even if i had wanted to stay to experience the friday class, i couldn’t. i was very nauseous, and my head started pounding. i managed to act/stay fine until i was alone again, and then proceeded to be ill for the rest of the weekend.

@saturday has said a few times, i think, that they came away from this semester knowing less what freedom is/means, and knowing more about what freedom isn’t. personally, i think i’ve learned a little of both, but i think i connect with his sentiment.

as was mentioned in our final socrates café event, there was a women in our last thursday group who said she felt free all the time, while another woman said that she felt that she would be free when she was out of prison. i still cannot – especially after the tour – think of either woman as truly free. while i can do my best to respect both of their feelings and self-understandings, being incarcerated in such a place and system for me negates so much freedom. i would say that feeling free and having freedoms both effect my understanding of what freedom is, as a whole. much of joel’s course had me reflecting specifically on governmental and political freedom, though we did not specifically discuss that. once, near the beginning of the semester, i said that i could tell what a democracy wasn’t but couldn’t define what democracy was – much the same as @saturday's response to defining freedom.

i don’t know that joel remember this, but he challenged me to be able to define democracy by the end of the semester. and in such a reflection, i have found myself considering this in all of our classrooms – inside rcf and inside bryn mawr.

can there ever be a true democracy if any one part of a person or group is silenced? doesn’t that inherently mean that, as long as prisons exist, democracy cannot? moreover, doesn’t that mean with such foundational histories of slavery and genocide, that democracy cannot ever exist within the united states? does trauma – generational and personal – negate democracy?

is democracy the same as freedom?

i still don’t have the answers, my inclination after this semester is to say, ‘yes, democracy is freedom, and neither is fully achievable’. but i also am inclined to say that there are still some freedoms, some limited forms of democracy that exist. and i’m further inclined to say that, just because “true” freedom isn’t achievable, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reach for it.

this conclusion comes, in part, from the final essay i wrote about art and accessibility. accessibility is another form of true freedom, yes? accessibility is maybe also democracy…

anyway, i wrote, “i want to be clear:

this is not an argument against accessibility.

accessibility absolutely can be (and i believe should be) reconsidered in a variety of ways. universal design is a concept that i fully support us all striving towards. but it is never fully achievable. because of that, we always will have more that we can do, more that we can work on, and values to weigh against and with one another.”

so yes, i think there are a variety of kinds of accessibilities, a variety of freedoms, a variety of democracies, but the singular, “true” and absolute kind can’t be achievable because of the smiles on the faces of individuals working in the prison industrial complex who uphold it in violent ways and think that they’re doing morally righteous work.

and to stretch this argument…does any time we spend working within the prison, rather than trying to dismantle it, make us part of those individuals upholding the pic in violent ways? 

are we, as educators/facilitators/students going into the prison, setting up these programs, no better than the guards?

"side-stepping the split between abolitionists and prison educators, angela davis maintains that we should work to “create more humane, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system” (are prisons obsolete? 103).  and your colleague:  but making this environment “more habitable” can indeed help to make it more permanent." - from Steal This Classroom [linked]