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Nothing is Simple

CatWhisperer's picture

I'm going to put up my blog post on Saturday instead of Tuesday night, because I'm being productive on this warm Saturday afternoon, yo. 

Okay. I'm going to write about my first time in a women's prison. Our group  all squeezed ourselves into a BMC van and went to a prison in the area (can't say which one it is on the internet). I had heard about this opportunity a year ago and was very interested to go and see what it's like in there. We spent a total of about three hours in there. I was very apprhensive about going in. I have never been in a working prison before; I had only seen the insides of them on documentaries. Needless to say, the place was quite dismal and stark. 

I met about twenty prisoners and we basically had english class together. We spoke about a short story (it involved werewolves) and I got to hear bits and pieces of their experiences on being incarcerated. While listening to them, I started to get panicky and took a quick bathroom break. For most of my life, I've always thought I was a good judge of character. I felt that I could tell who was a "good" person and who was "bad" or someone I should stay away from. All of these women were undeniably good. I met this one woman called Skye. She was lovely, very warm, intelligent, and motherly. She was interested to hear what my plans were for after college and where I got my leggings from. I looked up her name up later that night and found that she was on trial for murder (can't say which degree either, sorry). I was/am disturbed that someone who could do something so heinous was also so warm and friendly. Is it possible to judge if someone is a dangerous character at all? How could I protect myself from them? Do I need protecting?

Rationally, I know that nothing in this world is cut and dry. It's not possible to cut people neatly into two groups of good and bad. But I feel more comfortable in this world being able to tell who I need to stay away from. 



HSBurke's picture

Hi CatWhisperer, 

Thanks for taking the time to debrief your time inside. When I first started doing this work, it was incredibly hard for me to figure out how I felt, and even harder to write about it, so I commend you for diving in. That being said, I'd like to push back some on what you've laid out here. I completely understand the conflicting/confusing emotions you're describing. I was a nervous wreck during the first 2 months or so of class. However, I find the way you've presented these feelings to be problematic. It is important to remember that in the prison, it is us that is in the position of power, not the inmates. We can leave when we wish, lead the classroom, talk about our pesonal lives without fear of reprecussion. Sometimes, they can not. For this reason, the idea of needing "protection" from our students is confusing to me. As you've said,  the world, and the criminal justice system in it, isn't black and white. People can be incarcerated but not guilty. People can be guilty but not heinous. But in order to do the best work we can, it's our job to look beyond that, to see each woman as they are now in front of us -- students, friends, mothers, writers. The incarcerated population is not one that is given much respect by the general population, and I believe that it's the least we can do to respect their privacy and their pasts and not lead with assumptions about their character. I don't Google new people I meet at Bryn Mawr, and I'd like to afford them that same privelege. I hope this comments helps to add a new (but old!) voice to the conversation, and of course we'd love to hear from you about how we can all work together to make your weekly experience more comfortable!

abby rose's picture

CatWhisperer - thank you for how open you are with your concerns; you seem to speak what many of us think but do not let rise to the surface. A rare quality indeed! However, I would like to push back on your statements on good vs bad and people you "need to stay away from." 

Why do you feel you need protection? What about these women frightens you, makes you want to run? A few of the women in the literacy group last week made similar statements to "we're not criminals, we're just women." I argue that committing a crime does not a dangerous person make.

Notions of black and white, good and bad do not attend to the varying circumstances for people being imprisoned. You do not know their stories, and cannot make assumptions about what kind of people they are. Especially before or upon your first encounter with them. But I do ask, even after meeting all these women do you still hold onto the feeling that you need to be protected? If yes, why do you think that is the case? As you said yourself, "all of these women were undeniably good." 

Have you ever known someone who you considered a good person do a bad thing? After the "bad thing," did you see them as lesser people? Or acting out irrationally (as we all do) and suffering the consequences? Or just a good person in a tough circumstance? Or just in the wrong place at the wrong time? And did you feel that you then needed to stay away from them?

We've all committed crimes, and even worse: we've all done terrible things. This is a part of the human condition. We are all beings of good with incredible potential to do bad. If we didn't have this continuum inside of us, we wouldn't be humans. But if realizing that each person has the capacity for good and bad isn't something to rack the brain, then think about the very notions of what we define as good and bad: There are circumstances in which the most heinous acts can become understandable, and cimcumstances in which doing "good" can hurt more than it can help. There is no purely good or bad act, and definitely no good or bad people. 

For me personally I would be doing myself a disservice to not acknowledge the complexities of each person I meet. If I didn't, how could I ever ask them to realize the complexities of my own personality? My own past? I have done bad things, but I truly believe I am a good person. I would hate for someone to judge my character based on an act I committed in the past or without considering my extenuating circumstances. Part of seeing individuals as complex is understanding that they have a wide range of emotions and fears and anxieties - just like you do - and as horrified as you may be with someone's actions, it can't compare to having a crime like murder on your conscience.  

I also want to question, where do you think the ideas of good and bad come from and why anxiety arises when surrounded by people who have committed crimes? I think the roots of these concerns could tell you a lot about the language and images surrounding prison that come from people who have no contact with prison, or people with a more malicious agenda. (See: heavily biased media depictions of "criminals" and us vs. them mentality, etc.)

Please, keep sharing with the group your concerns and being open with your thoughts. The dialogue is very much appreciated. I genuinely look forward to more conversations with you over the course of the semester.