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breaking through the bars - final fieldwork paper

sshameti's picture

Silvi Shameti

Identity, Access, Innovation

Final Fieldwork Paper

Fall 2014

“Coral Reef” Correctional Facility


Six of us walk into the prison around 5:10PM on Thursday. By now, we have figured out a way to coordinate our arrival with the correctional officers (COs) inside in order to get the women to our class before count. Once we get through the entrance protocol (handing in our IDs to the officer at the front desk, having our stuff pass through the detector and checked by the officer, having our hands stamped and receiving a pat-down, entering into another room where we once again repeat the bag-checking, patting-down procedure and enter the elevator to the second floor), we reach our classroom. It is in the office of social work, where (I presume) the social workers spend their workday (though they are usually gone by the time we get there). On the wall behind the main desk in the waiting area, where a CO sits and monitors the area, is a collection of inspirational quotes written on very colorful paper (bright pink is what I remember the most), some of them cut into hearts. The sentiments are often things about working hard, believing in yourself, using religion as a guide, etc., and some of them thank the different social workers that work in the prison. This display strikes me every time we walk into this room, and I can’t but feel myself burn slightly at the irony of it and the way it is clearly being celebrated in this environment.

For this class, we have planned an activity that is meant to work on transitions in writing while also being fun and interesting. Once everyone files in and the housekeeping is done, we give everyone a sheet of paper and a pencil and explain the activity. Every person is to write a line on the sheet that is meant to be the beginning of a story - which could really be anything. Then they are to pass the paper to the right and the next person will continue the story with a different line that builds off the first, fold down the paper so the first line is not visible but the line they just wrote is, and then pass it on to the next person. Essentially, each person can only see the line previously written, without the context of any other lines, and so the story is built line by line. When the activity is over, we read the stories that we have created together. Some of them are silly, some of them flow really well, and some lines get heavy. One poem, read aloud by Sasha, seems to strike all of us; it included lines about “getting out” of prison, and how reformed someone had felt since being in prison, and how they held themselves accountable for the bad decisions they made that landed them there. However, another line after that places blame on “the system.”

After the class is over, this poem comes up as a topic of discussion on our ride back to school. We talk about how it is interesting that so many of the women do seem to want to hold themselves or their own actions accountable for where they are now; some of them even cite losing sight of their faith as part of the reason they made “bad decisions,” and many of them seem to take on religion as a form of guidance and an influence that will put them back on the “right path.” It is not the presence of religion that is most striking, but the fact that the women seem to feel as though they have so much control over their lives in the sense that they brought themselves into their current positions. Romi mentions feeling excited at the line that placed blame on “the system,” because it showed that there was some recognition of larger social institutions affecting the lives/situations of each of the women in our class in different ways - until we found out that it was Sasha who had written that line. A little disappointed, the topic then turned to the impact that this way of thinking - this idea of “personal accountability” - could have on one’s experience both inside the prison and after one has left. One point that was brought up was that it could actually be empowering to think that one has that much power over one’s life, in a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of way, and it may give people hope to think that they are reformed enough to change the way they lived once they leave prison (or while they are in prison). On the other hand, though, it’s been shown that the “American Dream” narrative is often a false advertisement and that there are many things that stand in the way of achieving those kinds of goals; it could be debilitating to come out of serving time and feel as though one is capable of improving one’s life only to have to face the same institutions that led to one’s incarceration and not understand why one isn’t able to succeed the way one wants to. This question of how much we should be openly discussing different kinds of systemic oppressions like racism, classism, sexism, and their intersectionalities has been a question for the Bryn Mawr group before, and although I think the Friday reading group has been able to breach that in many ways, the Thursday group has yet to develop a way to touch on it. I think it may be a meaningful discussion to have, especially considering how politically charged the idea of “literacy” can be, and how much power one could have in re-defining what it meant for that class and that group of people.

Robert Scott’s “Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison,” takes a very strong stance on the way teachers in prison should handle this issue. He writes,

“There seems to be an intuitive tendency to remain somehow ‘politely silent’ on the issue of disempowerment, seemingly out of respect for the dignity of incarcerated students, but it is folly to think that one can be an empowering teacher while remaining silent about the obvious power imbalances. One of the roles of radical teaching is to expose the silence on power relations as a phenomenon of choice” (Scott, 3).

While I understand where Scott is coming from, I also hesitate with feeling as though I would have some sort of access or authority when it comes to “teaching” adult women who probably have scores of lived experiences surrounding these structures; although I’ve been able to deconstruct them in classrooms surrounded by my peers, I have never actively experienced many of them, especially ones like racism. I am sure that there must be a way to perform this task with tact and in a way that is meaningful for everyone involved, but I am also hyper-aware of my identity as a white, privileged student that attends a highly ranked private college, and as someone who is also much younger than many of the students in the class. Essentially, who am I to walk into a classroom and tell incarcerated women why and how they got there? And how does one avoid reducing neighborhoods and family structures and the school system they grew up in to social theories?

In addition, I think it necessary to examine my own desires in this situation; like why do I want to bring up these conversations so much? Do I think it will benefit the people in the class, or will it lessen my guilt as a person who is not in that kind of position? Many times I wonder if my intentions don’t wander into the realm of white savior-ness, especially in a place as oppressive as prison. Could it also be that just as I am uncovering the different institutions that govern our society by learning about them in school, I want to share my discoveries with other people? And why assume that other people don’t know more about these structures than I do? Lastly, Scott also writes, “I am white, I have the privilege to leave the prison, and (ultimately) I have power over the incarcerated while I am in prison. But as a prison teacher I am also a part of the system that can resist the system. Prison educators have to recognize that they are not separate from the power structure - they cannot escape it, they can only respond within it” (Scott, 4).

Sara’s question for our placement fishbowls in class was about “how we [can] bring conversations we have outside of prison into the classroom,” and one of the reasons I find this topic so compelling is because of recent events that have taken over our country’s social and political climate. The protests and demonstrations sparked by the unjust death of Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson have spread far beyond those in Ferguson, Missouri, even reaching places outside of the United States. One of the protests that I still think about frequently is one held in Boston on November 25th, in which marchers made their way to the South Bay House of Correction in order to show solidarity with the people serving time there, and in turn, the people inside the prison were able to show solidarity with the marchers. I found this demonstration extremely charged and moving because it is well documented that people of color, especially those who identify as Black or African-American, make up a disproportionate amount of the population of incarcerated people, and the prison-industrial complex undoubtedly targets people of African-American descent (as chronicled by Michelle Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow”), and for the marchers to make the connection between Mike Brown’s death (which is, of course, only one of countless examples of police brutality aimed at Black bodies) and the prison system was really meaningful to me. It was able to empower the people inside to join forces with the people outside and express the way they felt about everything that had been going on. I also appreciated the way it broke down the idea that people inside prison can’t participate in political activism, or may not be able to keep up with current events or be able to share their opinions on what’s going on in the world. The fact that marchers chanted “we see you,” and acknowledged that the people inside could be and are affected by what happens outside of prison, was a really important gesture that reaffirmed the value of those who may often feel stuck in a place that refuses to recognize their humanity.

This event made me think a lot about the women in our classroom at the facility, especially when one of them, after we asked everyone in the room to go around and say what they wanted to be when they were younger (as an introductory activity), mentioned that she had wanted to be a cop. Jewel* said she would’ve been a good cop, too - one that would help people out and not target them unfairly. Scott writes, “An incarcerated student once told me that I gained my rapport with my students the day I mentioned police brutality in class (i.e. I appeared to be on ‘their side’ simply by being a non-prisoner who acknowledged police misconduct)” (Scott, 4), and I wonder what would’ve happened if we had thought to bring up recent events when she made that comment, and whether it could’ve sparked a greater discussion.

Also, the events surrounding Mike Brown and subsequent tragedies (Vonderrit Myers, the lack of indictment, and later, the death of Eric Garner and the shooting of Tamir Rice, amongst others) are extremely emotional and traumatic events. These are events that people often want and need to talk about in order to work through; they are things that incite anger and sadness and those feelings need to be expressed or they build up inside. Much like I appreciated the way our class became a place where we could openly discuss what we knew and how we felt, I wonder what kinds of opportunities the women in our classroom have to do the same, and if it would’ve been possible for us to be able to provide that. As this movement has turned into a fight to regain humanity for Black bodies and to make Black voices heard, it strikes me how similar this outside struggle is to the struggle experienced by those in prison (the struggle to be seen as human, and to have their voices heard). I feel it may have been worthwhile to be able to bring current events into the classroom, and to hear the opinions and experiences of the women in our classroom.


Works Cited:

Scott, Robert. "Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison." Radical Teacher 95.1 (2013): 22-32.



BELOW: Photos of a Boston Protest in late November in which 1,400 marchers made their way to the South Bay House of Correction, which is where both male and female inmates who have sentences of 2.5 years or less serve their time, and chanted “we see you” and “Black lives matter” (source).


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