Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Sunday Post

meerajay's picture

Friday at the prison was harrowing, left me aching,  somehow less hopeful than before. But I felt privileged to be in that space, listening to these stories, as excruciating as they were.

I should probably begin by saying that I did not enter the prison space on Friday in the best possible state of mind. This past week has been rougher than usual. With a lot of different mental health and family struggles coming together at once, on top of the nationwide (or worldwide) issues with race, and their center on Bryn Mawr’s campus, there have been a thousand percent more issues taking up my energy away from academics this week. Selfishly, I hoped for a positive book group this week, something that would rejuvenate me, as book group usually does. As Joie Rose so eloquently put in their Sunday Post, I was “indulging in my humanness”.

Certain things that stuck out to me this week:

  • “Dance floor” - the women call the visiting room the “dance floor” because to them, it’s this extraordinary space where they experience humankind beyond the usual. When I think of a dance floor, I think of a place full of possibilities; the capacity for bodily, and therefore mental, freedom. The visiting room becomes their dance floor, the closest thing that they will have to that level of freedom.
  • Family and visitation - some of the women prefer their families never visit them because they do not want them subjected to the same kind of humiliation that they experience in the prison. They do not want their babies to be strip searched by strangers. They cannot fathom their families seeing them in this state.
  • Sunlight - One of the women, Christal*, kept disparaging Orange is the New Black, calling it “prison lite”. She said, “to me, that seemed like a college campus. We have to fight even for sunlight here.”

Halfway through book group, one of our “regulars”, Liana* came in. She was carrying a lot of books and seemed visibly distressed. She took a seat next to me and I leaned over to catch her up a little on what we were doing, and asked her if she needed paper and pencil to write with. She couldn’t meet my eyes, said that she was “depressed today” and preferred not to write, instead sitting quietly. I asked her if she wanted to go outside and talk, and she said that she was afraid that she would cry.

Then we looked at each other. And whatever was holding her back from speaking ceased to exist and the pain and anger and hurt gushed out of her like a faucet. Her eyes filled with tears as she began describing her children to me, four gorgeous children. She showed me a photograph of two of them, all milk-teeth innocent smiles and wondering eyes making funny faces for the camera. She whispered so softly that I could barely hear her, about how painful it was to be away from them, to be unable to mother them. “Horrible things happen in the world. Rape happens, people hurt other people… I was only protecting what was mine. I feel like I repented enough. I’m trying to leave everything to Him-” she pointed at the Bible in her arms- “but it’s so hard.” I tried to think of something, anything substantial to say...but what could possibly alleviate the pain? I settled for just squeezing her hand as tightly as I could. I told her that her feelings mattered, and she was important, that she would always be a mother to her children no matter how far away she seemed to them.

And then Christal joined us and held Liana’s other hand. But after she listened to what was making Liana hurt, her first reaction was the polar opposite of mine. “I get where you’re coming from, but crying isn’t helping you. Indulging isn’t helping you. When we’re here, we lose a little bit of ourselves every day. We can’t be whole. But giving into that is not the way to go. You have to do what you can to live while you’re here. You can’t give up. Crying won’t do anything for you right now.”

Class ended at that moment. Liana, still brimming with tears, had to get up. I let go of her hand, gave her a long hug.

Here at Bryn Mawr, we spend so much time justifying and affirming our feelings to each other. Whenever I have a friend who is barraged with a negative emotions, my first statement is: “Your feelings are valid. You matter. It is okay to feel the way that you are feeling.” It struck me how privileged we are to be able to “indulge in our humanity,” to validate our feelings that way. In this world, on the outside, sometimes we can allow ourselves to fall apart. We do not have the threat of constant surveillance on us, the shame that comes from it. We can embody our private selves. If the women in prison allowed themselves to succumb to the intensity of their feelings, they would fall apart, and it would happen in shame, without privacy. The most that they can do is pull themselves together, even repress their emotions, carry on. They risk losing even the small pinch of humanity that prison allows them, the last bit of honor that they have left. “Let go,” Chrystal kept saying, “crying doesn’t help. Nothing helps except moving forward.”

I have been thinking about honor, especially female honor, for a while. This idea that in the face of shame, in the dehumanization that the system brings, you can somehow keep hidden a part of yourself, the part that keeps you going. You have your honor, if only you do not let yourself shatter. If you do not allow yourself to fathom the true nature of the violence that you are facing. It is becomes a form of self-defense to hold something deep inside yourself, something only for you. Harnessing the silence is the only way to survive. Earlier in English class I mentioned the concept of sati, a Hindu practice in which the wives of warriors, if they heard of their husbands’ defeat on the battlefield, would burn themselves alive rather than face the shame of being captured and touched by another man. In a violently patriarchal system, they were worthless, sullied if a man who was not their husband touched them. There, suicide became a way to preserve the only thing they had left: their honor. In prison, you “lose yourself,” as Christal said. You have to kill the last of the humanity that imprisonment affords you, the last bit of “you” that there is: your emotions. Or else you are only left with the shame.

A lot of dark, anguished feelings this week. A little sliver of hope, though, when I heard that this would be Christal’s last class with us, that she would be (hopefully) released by next week. And (hopefully) Liana, too. I am praying so hard for them, that they will find some kind of peace, somehow, on the outside. I have not prayed in a while but I am praying now; something about this makes me want to believe in a higher power again.

My heart is heavy.

*names have been changed, obviously.


meerajay's picture

I can't help but feel so much guilt rereading this post. What right do I have to a heavy heart? What right do I have to anything? I get to leave. I get to get into a van with some dear friends and we joyously sing to the radio every ride back, reveling even in the small pleasure of a Friday, of the coming weekend.

After the prison visit we stepped outside into cool evening air and the familiar knot of anxiety in my stomach loosened a tiny bit as I smelled fresh air and open spaces. And then I thought of those who suffer from anxiety and depression who are imprisoned. "We have to fight for sunlight," Christal said. To have to fight just for the humanity of being able to feel cool air in the evenings, to have to fight for the feeling of the sun on your face... 

And then there's how we claim the right to fight for those that we love. Liana barely just talked about how she ended up in prison, but from what I could gather, it was for motherhood. Someone harmed her child in some way and she fought back. When I confided this to a friend this past weekend, she said, "I bet my parents would hurt someone who hurt me, too." But if my friend's mother sought revenge, if her mother got revenge, would the system be as against her as it was Liana? Would the system justify what she had done? Liana is black, was fifteen when she had her first child. Who knows who fought for her right to a mother's anger? We claim so much with motherhood, or with being someone's child. 

(Disjointed, unfinished thoughts)