Getting it off my chest! Tutwiler prison part 2
When I share with family, friends, colleagues, students, individuals who I meet and strike up a conversation with, that I teach Women’s Studies at the Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama, I usually receive one of two responses.
The first response is “Oh wow (shocked look and long pause), aren’t you scared?” or, “you need to be careful, those people are in prison for a reason.”
The other reaction I receive is, “Oh, that is so cool/good/ (or other word to describe my actions as very benevolent) that you are doing this to help these people!”
As I receive these comments from persons who have never been to, never seen the inside of a prison, or never interacted with an incarcerated person, I understand that these responses are obviously premised on the public images and messages which circulate in our society about the type of people who go to prison. The message is generally that, they are violent, inherently bad people who need to be helped/ saved.
However, even with this understanding I am aware that my response to these comments is changing the more I hear them and I have started to become more and more irritated by them especially as I get to know better the women at Tutwiler.
I think that I am increasingly irritated because not one of the responses I have received includes an enquiry about my own experiences teaching in the prison. What is more, is that when carrying on a conversation with a person who has already condemned incarcerated persons, I feel as though I either need to justify my going into the prison, or to defend the women I teach but I also hit a brick wall in explaining how the public narrative about prisons and those who go to prison in the USA, according to Angela Davis, needs to be interrogated and deconstructed.
We need as a nation and as a world to have a broader and deeper conversation about incarceration and prisons, one that definitely moves beyond the binary responses that I have been receiving.
In the meantime I decided to interrogate my own position as an “intermediary” and why I was becoming increasingly irritated and whether I would be so irate if I did not have the privilege of knowing these wonderful, bright women at Tutwiler.
Did I too previously labour under a similar impression of incarcerated persons? Why was I really teaching at the prison? Was I also guilty of not entirely appreciating the prison, the legal system and their very messy connection to the bigger, mostly unchallenged notions of crime and discrimination in the wider society?
The honest response to these questions I believe stems from the same reason why I turned my back years ago on the legal profession. As a trained attorney, called to the Barbados Bar in 2004, I felt like I was working in a system that really did not do much to address the systemic problems with the society that punished poor and disadvantaged persons for trying to feed, provide for and protect their children and themselves using what means they had available to them.
I felt as I got to know more about my clients’ lives, their challenges, and the fundamental lack of resources they experienced every day, that the legal system was a band aid that was placed on an ailing society.
Instead of working at fixing fundamental problems in our broken system by attempting to implement real change from the top, we would rather punish people who try to survive and then justify this punishment by labeling persons bad, or to use correct sociologically terminology, deviant. No wonder, the response from the people I speak with is that I need to be careful.
So frustrated with the legal system, I left! I quit, not willing anymore to assist in perpetuating a society which discriminates against people because of their socio-economic backgrounds, race, gender, criminal background, etc.
Not comfortable with the reality that as an attorney at law and a human being I was supporting, perpetuating, this broken system. When a society spends more on prison than on education, then it is obvious that the system is broken and something needs to be done.
The discrimination gets worse once a person actually spends time in prison. That prisoner as I am told with great dread “is in prison for a reason.” This is obviously so, but without further interrogation this is a very naive statement. Is the reason the person is in prison because of the offense they have committed against “decent” society? Or, is the reason tied more directly to that person having no financial resources, no support system, nothing to eat, a mental disease and no support or insurance, having to choose between their lives or lives of someone who is threatening or has threatened theirs, growing up in an abusive household, or just plain having made a stupid mistake as a young person in an unforgiving society? This is the REAL reason the majority of women are in prison.
The reality is that if most of us placed ourselves in any of those dilemmas wouldn’t we be in prison too? The women I teach are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, who talk about their children, grandchildren, and families with such compassion and who laugh and cry. Who treat me with the utmost respect and who I believe would protect me if anything had to happen in the prison that would endanger my wellbeing. They are human beings who had a rough life and who were dealt a bad hand because of a broken society. They are not bad or scary people!
Then to the second response of “Oh that is so good,” which I appreciate is a compliment but which disturbs me because it demonstrates the final concretization of the binary idea of prisoners as bad and needing to be saved.
This binary perpetuates an “us (those on the outside) and them (those on the inside)” attitude largely responsible for creating this almost sainthood and God complex of persons who have traditionally gone into prison to do what is referred to as “rehabilitation work”, especially from those who are from religious groups, the groups that are most welcomed in prisons. The sinner-like caricature of prisoners who have done bad, need to repent and need nothing less than God himself, appears to be the basis of rehabilitation.
As a volunteer in the prison system, I do think what I am doing is good, but from the perspective that I believe in the value of education as a force which equips ALL (from my students at the Tutwiler prison, to the students who sit before me twice a week in the university class room) individuals to make more informed decisions.
But as I watch the organizations that use the room before and after me set their pitch and read and conduct their sessions and as I speak with the students about these classes it appears to me (and I must confess my inability to know these people’s intentions) that there is a certain arrogance to the work that they are doing in the prison and a certain lack of respect for the prisoner.
I must confess that I am not completely innocent and must reveal that I too am not immune from this type of attitude. It was through a deep interrogation of my own prejudices that I have acknowledged my own arrogance and now understand that my initial shock and awe at how bright my students at Tutwiler are comes from my arrogance and ignorance as a free, educated, woman, previously unfamiliar with the prison and influenced by the public narrative.
The classes generally offered at the prison I am told by some students are taken because they look good for parole purposes but are not very edifying to them. When you have a rehabilitation system which focuses primarily on the acknowledgement and repentance of sins on the part of the so called sinner without much more, how are we (the powers that be in prison and those who are allowed to enter the facility freely to offer our rehabilitation services as volunteers/good doers) able to do more than just go to the prison and provide information in a form that assumes that imprisoned persons are bad people in need of saving without finding out and offering what they need on a more subjective and beneficial level?
This failure to seriously address the real issues of our society, reform the prison system including methods of so called rehabilitation has consequences and leads to a deepening and widening of the disconnect between the incarcerated person and the society.
This is evident, for even when the prisoner has been deemed by the system as reformed and rehabilitated (based on the judge’s ruling that the time he/she has been handed is sufficient for the offense committed, or the prison’s parole system that the prisoner is healthy enough to be release early) and when we the volunteer “rehabilitators” have done our job, after all of this, there is little to no support in “free” society for this now rehabilitated individual. This to me is evidence that the rehabilitation needed is a societal one, because it appears that unless this is done ex-prisoners will continue to experience discrimination.
This lack of support is compounded by another societal narrative, that is, despite all the religious and other instruction the former prisoner has received, despite the clean bill of health given by the system, these individuals are now spoken of as having been hardened by the system and viewed with suspicion by all in “free society”. The business community refuses to hire an ex-con, the judicial system and wider society judge them harshly. The ex-con is released into the same economic conditions and a worse social and discriminatory position than when they were rehabilitated.
The irony of it is that the majority of the women I teach at Tutwiler operate at such a high educational level (see my previous post on Incarcerated Vaginas) that if they were just given a chance, if the system instead of locking up their potential, offered them a real chance to channel their strengths for their own and society’s own benefit then this world would be a much more productive place.