On the Inside, Week 1: Greetings
Of course, I can only speak of this experience anecdotally, so I’ll just give you the basics of what it was like to teach my first class inside the barbed wire fencing of a state prison.
I knew my nerves would calm as soon as I got through the security of the control room. From what I hear, this part of the whole experience can be the most excruciating. Though, admittedly, this was only my third time crossing over into the world “on the inside.” Three times already. For someone like me to admit to being inside a male prison even three times in one lifetime seems like a lot. But there will be many more times, and many more experiences with the control room to report. This time, only minor delays, and no real hassles. It helps that I’ve done my training with the Department of Corrections, and my personal pin number that grants me access to facilities across the state is recorded in the system. Hand them the ID, give them the pin, let them ask questions, and remain calm throughout the process. See, the trick to a successful visit to prison is to understand the authority and straddle the line of respect between the Corrections Officers and the inmates. Anything can happen at any point throughout this process, so having a master-level command of your own emotional fluidity and composed reaction control are absolutely job requirements for working on the inside.
The decision to teach in a prison is not a choice that is easily made by just anyone. In fact, I would tell you that it wasn’t even my choice at all. It was more a compulsion or propulsion toward something that would challenge me beyond any level of comfort that I had established in my life. When they tell you to step out of your comfort zone, it doesn’t always mean that you should choose a path that is literally the opposite of anything you’ve been striving for your whole life (I never even had a detention in school), but nonetheless, if you feel so strongly drawn into something, it’s hard to ignore that there is some kind of reason burgeoning below the surface that is beyond the realm of your own conscious comprehension.
Bear with me.
The room never filled like it was supposed to that day. The class wasn’t going to be as big as I had initially thought, and there was some comfort in knowing I wouldn’t be standing in front of a room of over 25 convicted criminals. As the guys trickled in and complained about the lack of a “call out,” which is their permission to leave the un-air-conditioned blocks where their cells are located, my nerves began to fade. These are, after all, just men. Perhaps it was my years of solo-navigating cocktail parties and professional networkers that have lulled me into a state of relaxation in a room full of oft-intimidating strangers. My approach in this setting was not unlike my method in introducing myself to men in pinstripes and designer ties, just this time the business suits were exchanged for baby blue cotton jumpsuits, and business cards replaced by inmate ID numbers.
An extension of the right hand, a smile, and a greeting. A universal sign of respect and indication that I am not a threat. This is what commonly binds us from the outside to the inside, a formal greeting in an informal setting. We all know the rules; handshakes and nothing personal, just like it is at those networkers. This alternative world would almost feel familiar had it not been for the cackle of an officer’s radio as he passed in the background, a reminder of the monitored confinement we shared in this setting.
Is there irony in using a simple action, which for many cultures symbolizes an absence of danger, with someone who arguably has already proven to be a risk to the general public? Remember that the capacity to harm pervades all levels of society and intellectual capacity. Have you ever met a President, CEO, militarily-trained assassin? Did you extend your hand to someone harboring a secret? The threat exists just as strongly there as it does in my situation. The desire to cause damage is often linked to motivations that exist in many of us, but the fulfillment of those desires is what separates the before mentioned business suits from the jumpsuits.
The class never filled, but there was a time when we must begin, only 35 minutes late. Remember, anything can happen here, so being able to adjust expectations is also key to the experience of it all. As with any first day of class, there are introductions of names and faces, an overview of policies and classroom concepts, and undoubtedly the explanation of the rules. Most importantly, we are in a creative writing environment, where trust and respect are paramount to an inclusive experience for all. However, I must point out the obvious to the men who sit blank-faced in a square around me.
I am a woman. This is a male prison. I’m not going to stand here and pretend that we’re operating in a setting that even remotely functions like the world I’m used to on the outside. These men are deprived, perhaps rightfully so, of any real female presence, aside from the occasional Corrections Officer or administrative staff. I’m new and different to them. I get it. I’m not naïve to where their mind might wander if given the reigns to drive their own creative policies.
No sexual content. None. No profanity; that’s boring. Be more creative.
A few smirks, but overall, they understand the rules of this engagement — I am here to provide a reprieve from a life I will never understand, nor do I hope to ever really comprehend. I’ll be here for two hours a week and then I’m gone, back to my reality on the outside. I get into my car, and I drive away. I’m here on my own free will, and I can choose to never return.
These guys? They wait for count, and go back into the world that breaks them down into shadows of a former self. No choices. No authority. All points past security are of no return. It’s perhaps in this reflection that we find our mutual understanding.
Drive safely, one inmate says to me as I head toward the door on the opposite side of the room from where they wait to be corralled back to their cells after class. And I wonder, as I breathe the air of freedom outside the layers of sharp, rolled fencing my students must stay behind, was that command for my benefit, or his?