Sometimes, I forget that the people inside are people outside of our classroom. It is eerily easy for me to operate as if our classroom exists in a vaccuum. We enter the prison, head straight to the room, and we don't see the inmates until they're just outside our door. Class goes on every week, just as we planned, and we say goodbye. The people inside go back to... to where? to what? to whom? While back to the van we go, ready to decompress and listen to the latest handful of #1s on the radio. As group we spend so much collective energy planning the class amidst discussions of the prison industrial complex, and thus attempting to address the experiences that the people inside are coming to class with. However, and this is something I only realized this past Friday after our tour of the prison, we spend very very little time talking about the lives of the people we actually know who are incarcerated. This is not to say that we ought to be making more assumptions about the lives of the people we are only permitted to know for an hour and a half once a week, not at all. But what I understand now is that before the tour, I could barely comprehend what the people inside experienced while incarcerated.
The moment I first realized this was when we were walking through the release and intake section of the prison; this was when we passed by several women who were being held in a locked room (of course, they must be controlled) with floor to ceiling windows (of course, we must be able to watch their every move) waiting for an indeterminable amount of time (of course, they cannot know their fate) before they were released. I couldn't tell whether they had just arrived or whether they were about to be released until our guide (title and name will be withheld from this post) explicitly stated; regardless of their guilt or their paid dues to society or whether or not they had finished their sentences, they were still literally locked in a cage while we passed them by. Minutes later after we left this group, we walked to a space where there was a woman sitting in a chair as her belongings (I assume) were sifted through by a CO across the room. Our guide explained that the chair the woman sat in was for people who needed to be psychiatrically evaulated (or something personal along those lines). She spoke as if the woman were not sitting right there, being analyzed by an anonymous group of college students. I noticed a brief flash of exasperation on the woman's face as our guide gestured over to her, and wondered how I would react if I were treated as such. As I thought on it, I realized that the woman likely could not have reacted any more than she did in that moment as she needed to be compliant at all times, especially under the supervision of not only a CO but also of a much higher-ranking official within the prison. Had she asserted herself as more human than that moment allowed, she may have received some kind of penalty for speaking out of line.
This realization extended beyond this moment, too. The deeper we traveled into the prison, the more unsettled I became. Our guide rattled off the multitude of programs, services, intiatives, and protocols in attempts to assure us that this prison is a top of the line facility, this is a prison that is sensitive to the needs of present-day inmates, so to speak. Though in spite of the fact that the prison is indeed a well-maintained and respectable facility, when our guide tells inmates traveling the corridors to step to the side, they have to. When she asks an inmate to smile, she have to. When the inmates are told to wait for their medication, for their food, to contact their loved ones and lawyers, they have to. When an inmate is asked to give up her child after giving birth, she has to. I suppose I knew it before the tour, but witnessing the vicious mix of subtle and obvious dehumanization of incarcerated individuals firthand forced me to truly understand that the people inside have no rights. How humane can a prison be when at the end of the day it is still a prison? Where humans are not treated as such and where basic rights are nearly nonexistent?
The incarcerated peoples in our classroom to me are just that: people who happen to be incarcerated. In the space of our classes, I only think of them as people. But isn't forgetting the fact that they are in prison, even when (especially when?) they are in our classroom just another way to dehumanize them? Why am I able, allowed, and encouraged to constantly forget the underlying reality of life in prison even though I visit it weekly?