Chapter One

Being Here


When you ride the train in, especially when you are by yourself, you feel an almost physical body-pull backward. This creates a weird sense of simultaneous forward and backward movement, like the body parts of a snake rearing back to strike or a cartoon with strong lines moving through your body in both directions, criss-crossing, canceling out. Even as the train hurtles past the landscape of backyards on tracks on old factory shells, and closer to the cluster of prisons strung out under the highway.  What are you doing here?  This question is in your marrow, fortunately hidden from view as you hop in the van with your students and are waved through by guards, then stow belongings in a metal locker, except your state-issued ID which you hand to representatives of the state as you wade through one machine and hand-stamp, two human pat-downs, three heavy-duty gates.

Now you realize you are smiling.  Smiling?  Polite rage.

Bringing ridiculous idealism based on knowing these women are human beings, just like all of us, bringing fear: what if this isn’t true?  And you hear from people working in this system:  These women will con you if you let them, you can’t believe what they tell you, and, sometimes from the women: everyone is here for a reason.  You don’t ask the reason.

In a class held elsewhere for incarcerated women, a theater teacher “challenges these women to think about what words mean, to ask and begin to answer, ‘Why are we here?’” (84, emphasis added)  You want to grab the edges of this question and stretch it into a tent or a trampoline:  why are we all here? Some of us here in this prisonSome of us in college? All of us in this shared classroom space on Friday afternoons? Why here on this earth, and what to do about it?

And what about the COs?  You practice what a colleague calls “professional flirtation” with the correctional officer at the front desk: maybe she’ll let in the transparent bags we’ve purchased especially for bringing in materials; your student in spiked loafers, and the one who’s only brought her student ID; forgive the pocketknife anotherforgot about in his jeans.  You smile to make contact.  The CO is a middle-aged woman with a round brown face and friendly smile, uniform pockets wide across her chest.  Under the ultraviolet your hand turns palest blue.  Up on the third floor the CO is late, doesn’t have the call sheet, just back from hip surgery and so ready to retire.  Her replacement has a sudden, loud and lovely laugh.  The ex of another is on staff at your college.

You wait.  They announce your program or don’t, call the units or not, you wait.  Your colleague and your college students – three or five or eight, some who’ve been coming in with you for years, some new and sitting forward, leaning back, crossing legs as: Slowly you are joined by one or two “inside women,” and another, another – and sometimes you hear: they didn’t make the call, the officer wouldn’t let me out last week, she’s in the hole, she’s having her baby, (and occasionally) she left.  Which could mean home, with that range of possibilities, or gone to a long-term facility.  Framed by spiky black hair, the officer on late shift coaches you in how to make the procedures work a little better for you.

How about a class with COs and incarcerated women? suggests your colleague.  The social worker raises her shapely brows.





Interlude: speaking as, for, of, with

At a conference a poet –a white woman, living 18 years in the deep South but not from there — opens by sharing her sorrow about the killings this past week in Charleston.  Then she reads a series of poems she’s written in the voices of people she’s invented, composites of folks from her area.  You find her voice speaking these other voices evocative, the sense of persons and place almost mythical.  Later your studenta Southerner, African American and Latinaobjects to the ethics of speaking for others, making up characters based not on research but on – what?  hearing how Southerner treat their dogs, for example?  Five of us in a lively exchange at dinner, you’re snagged between your own response and a strong respect for your student’s perspective, probing connections between evoking, mythologizing, colonizing.  One of us, an anthropologist with a strong literary bent, claims, I don’t really see poetry and novel writing as “speaking for others” in the same way that anthropologists engage in the dubious task of “giving voice.”  Poets have license to invent; that’s what they do.  Your student is unconvinced: what gives them license?

Rena Fraden says,

I took time to figure out how to write in my own voice about the voices of others.  There is a delicate balance between critical distance and passionate advocacy, as there is between writing of and about without wanting to write for or instead of someone else… (23)

Writing now, you worry about this: how to speak in your own voice and call up the voices of others – the women who are incarcerated, your college students, the COs, your colleague with whom you’ve been in this every step; know the presence of other voices reverberating in your head could paralyze you.  And if you write only as yourself, do you risk taking up too much space? (You remember Teju Cole’s description of the self-absorption of “white saviors.”)

Edgily moving in and out of the classroom, trying to exhibit patience as you press the CO to announce your program on the loudspeaker, you reenter into the soliloquy of the sole woman in blue in class so far today, offering a message for the college students:  They should “stand on the wall,” observing everything from that position and enacting the Biblical story in which God instructs his people to defend the city: “Enemies will come with battering rams, trying to tear down the wall you’ve built.” The “enemies”– “the critics, the cautious, the committed”– will try to distract them from that work.  The students listen raptly, write furiously.  And when one of you asks where she came by this lesson, wanting to read the text,she tells you she received it as a prophecy.


Begin again, with power differentials

You cross this threshold with colleagues, students; travel in trains and vans together, sharing your news of family, school, weekend plans; forget to know you’re free.  Enter with new books and those marbled, soft-bound composition pads, with pencils, nametags, lesson plans, once with microscopes, enter inured to procedures because after all you are free.  Though you too have committed crimes of intention and accident, you all will walk out after shift change on Friday afternoon, on your way to campus, farm, gym, home, party,

knowing that “many compassionate, dedicated, and decent people walk into prison education settings and try to build an illusion that the ‘inside’ of their classrooms are ‘outside’ of the racism, White supremacy, and White privilege realities”that incarcerated will encounter when they reenter their communities”;

knowing that the huge percentage of formerly incarcerated people, even those who are newly educated “will not be the next-door neighbors or work colleagues of their prison educators” (Gaskew, 76).

Still, you, your colleague, your students are also not all neighbors.  Some of you know well the crimes committed against you, if not those you commit; long to share your own mistakes with the women inside; have relatives inside and feel somehow responsible; send A Thousand Splendid Suns to your friend from high school now in prison. And tonight friends will ask about the jail, what it’s like, what you do there, and you’ll shrug, tell but not tell.  You’ll think of the good you mean to bring and receive, worry about the harm you might also cause as “actors in the system” who “contribute to and benefit from oppression” (Fasching-Varner, 423); and then you’ll try not to think of it at all because, after all, it’s your Friday night too.

And still, you and your students must carve out work in the world, as one of you, en route to graduate school in social work, heads to an internship investigating prisons overseas, another to a fellowship where she’ll continue teaching inside; you present with colleagues at conferences, gain cache in the social justice arm of the academy.  An article on “educational and penal realism” cautions that desires “to serve in activist roles have limits, through convergence with personal economic interests” (Fasching-Varner, 423). Who is working for social justice on behalf of whom, in this circumstance of profound power differentials?  And what could working with look like?

In imagining a “pedagogy of solidarity,” Gaztambide-Fernandez argues that

educators are called upon to play a central role in constructing the conditions for a different kind of encounter, an encounter that both opposes ongoing colonization and seeks to heal the social, cultural, and spiritual ravages of colonial history …. This requires moving beyond tired conceptions of individual autonomy and rational consciousness … [and] recasting our day-to-day relations and encounters with difference.  ‘What is at stake,’ to quote Judith Butler, “is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency” (42).

Rethinking the human, you perceive networks of connection, how one human being’s imprisonment creates another’s paycheck, how someone’s white is another’s black, how I am not free until you are.

Being in class (1)

From our reading list, 2012- 2015:

“Silence into Action” by Audre Lorde

“Beauty” by Alice Walker

Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Jane Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman

A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story by Elaine Brown

Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinonez

Kindred by Octavia Butler

“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell

“Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou

Push by Sapphire

Americanah by Chimichanda Ngozi Adichie

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Redefining Realness: A Memoir by Janet Mock

Since photos are not allowed, see this:  a dim squarish, windowless room of indeterminate color lit by ceiling fluorescents, long tables pushed to the edges to make room for a circle of those curved plastic chairs, not curved to any body you know.  Shot from above, this resembles a ritual clearing.


This is how you teach:  An introductory go-round with names and a question, either connected to the book or not, serious or playful or both.  If you could have a superpower, what would it be?  I’d fly right out of here.  If you were a marine creature?  And then you’re in the book: sometimes all or most of the participants have done the reading, and some have gone on and finished and can’t wait to talk about the ending, but often some have gotten the book and others not, some have read and others not.  This goes for the college students too.  So often you start by asking those who’ve read to share their responses and questions, and this might take us in.  Or read a passage together, go from there.  You mean to write to a prompt and then share, though often don’t get there, and end around the circle with a sentence or word as you drop nametags into the bag.

All or most are reading Bodega Dreams, so your first go-round, this time, is about characters: a lot of you pick Sapo, Chino’s best buddy who’s making it on the street, because he’s real; and a number choose Blanca, Chino’s wife and a good girl; one goes for Negra, Blanca’s edgier, darker sister, and you’ve been thinking about her too.  No one chooses Vera because she’s really evil which means you don’t care about anyone but yourself.

Then the conversation gets going on whether Chino –- who’s struggling with the dual identities of schoolboy and streetguy — is ratting when he goes to the cops.  What’s the difference between ratting and telling?  This is a nuanced and spirited conversation, with some saying it’s about motivation (is it just to save yourself?  is it spiteful, or for some greater good?), and about whether and how you are implicated in the wrongdoing.  Last week there was a fight at the jail: not going to anyone as it was coming on but then telling later, trying to make your own deal a little sweeter–that’s ratting.

Kindred opens with an arm in a wall –- physical and symbolic manifestation of a Black woman time-traveling to save a White ancestor.  “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls”schools young females raised by wolves, now in the throes of cultural assimilation.  A graphic in Persepolis parallels the explosions of partying and bombing in Tehran.  In these texts you explore the inexorability of the past; the tension of accommodation and resistance; the relationship between celebration and violence.


You know why you’re here.  These are exhilarating, nuanced classroom conversations in which you draw on connections between the texts and your lives to sharpen and deepen your analyses.  Megan Sweeney claims that reading “enables some women prisoners to gain self-knowledge, contextualize their experiences in relation to larger frameworks, mediate their histories of victimization and violence, and develop an understanding of the limits and possibilities of individual agency” (6). Yes, and too, you feel language as alive, ideas as agents in our classroom.

Longtime prison educator Rob Scott warns that while teaching in prison can be exhilarating and inspiring for teachers, this doesn’t mean that you are doing radical work inside.  Scott suggests that one “of the roles of radical teaching is to expose the silence on power relations as a phenomenon of choice.” You want to do this, try to figure out what he means, what it might actually look and feel like to teach toward this.  During planning sessions at the college you explore the implications of power relations in the classroom –- tongue probing sore tooth –- but inside again you shy away: want neither to flaunt nor to deny power, and thus too readily comply with silence.


See now a short, silent clip, black and white:  women of various shapes and sizes, skin tones and hair color, wearing boxy shirts and pants or college casual, leaning in to invest, leaning away and withdrawing into themselves, as words meander and then shoot like spit across our circle.

You read a passage from Bodega Dreams about school as utterly alienated from the lives of these characters, then veer into a discussion of parents’ roles in their children’s education.  She says she tried to be there to check her children’s homework but often couldn’t be; she jumps in, says, You have to be!; but I was working three jobs to put food on the table!; and: my father always checked that homework anyway, no matter what! You got to have priorities!  Bodies shifting, voices high, hard, pleading.

And of course in this moment, everyone is here, no one home checking children’s homework.

And yet, Avery Gordon describes our lives in terms of “hauntings”:  we are in more than one place, time, material reality, both here and there, now and then, sitting in this circle and athome, where you might be checking your children’s homework.

And yet, you are in this room in this moment: your splintering voices creating a cacophony of guilt and accusation, longing and regret.  What choices do people make, do people have, in light of poverty, race, history; stacked decks, necessary priorities? And time is up.  Your colleague starts to close class, you interrupt to say something, anything, about listening/respecting/learning from and with each other; you feel this to be misguided, inadequate; realize later that it misses the underlying stream of desire. Could a politics of desire help us interrogate this “shadow discourse of personal responsibility” (Fine and Ruglis, 20), the larger picture that embraces social context? Is there an opportunity here to interrogate ways that dominant ideals inflect individual guilt, divisions, and judgments among the people in this room?  And even this “near-miss” teaching moment (Sedgwick) begins to lift a curtain on the web of power relations in which you are all enmeshed.

You have dinner with three friends, all social workers, and they take you to task: You’re raising all these trauma-triggering subjects, and then just leaving — ?!  They ask questions about where the women might go during the week when we are not there. You know they’re trying to support you, feel caught nevertheless.

At your planning session you talk with your colleague and students, share worries about reactivating trauma, consider ways to mitigate: Should you be telling the social worker more?  You fear compromising confidentiality. Checking in more explicitly at beginning and end of sessions?  You are not therapists.

Fraden notes, “In theory, the disciplines of education, therapy, and art can be clearly separated, but in the jails, in practice,” it may be difficult “to separate drama’s ability to educate from its ability to provide therapy.” Theater director Rhodessa Jones “deliberately mixes them up, the education and therapy folded together into what she has called ‘creative survival.’” (76)

You wonder about the relationship between recognizing the enormity of trauma and acknowledging what Avery Gordon calls “complex personhood,”

the second dimension of the theoretical statement that life is complicated.  Complex personhood means that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves.  Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward. (4)


You talk with your husband, who works as a therapist. He says that just as trauma reorganizes the brain to shield the self, other experiences can reorganize the brain to open up.  He tries to help people move from identifying as victims toward a larger sense of complex personhood, to claim a sense of self that is more than their trauma.  Activating this “adaptive resilience” engages a sense of agency, of competence, of a dense, available network of connections.  Your role is different, he acknowleges, but brains are porous: what is happening outside is also inside; what happens in book group is part of how people are processing identities: the self is intellectual, people take what you say seriously.

Though you never ask the women why they are here, sometimes stories get told.  You hear Fraden’s caution:  “Storytelling can be a con game, a trick used against one’s foes.  It can also be the beginning of a different drama — a way to imagine, if not live out, a new life” (48).   Stories can weave new narratives, skeins of connection.  Tuesday morning your team meets, works through the nitty gritty of the upcoming class:  which passages, who will do the intro, how about the copying?  Also, teaching questions: what kinds of gaps are we leaving that might summon stories “reaching toward” new imaginings, toward each other?

flowers at mosque

Interlude: dreams and transitions

We are in a medium-security facility built to house females who are awaiting trial and/or have a short sentence.  So technically, it’s a transitional space.  Though transitional does not necessarily feel transitory, even for those of us who arrive at 1 pm and leave at 3:30.  And the jail itself feels like a kind of limbo, a state of inbetween, as during shift change when everyone freezes in place.  You wonder how the birds skittering at the edges of hallways enter and exit these windowless spaces.

And you are learning/discerning the language of incarceration:  security, facility, inmates, females, corrections, prisoners, offending, offenders, convicts, inside women, incarcerated women, ex-offenders, ex-cons, parolees, re-entry, recidivists, victims.  Words like glue-paper.

The language of higher ed is not so sticky, more abstract:  college and university, students, scholars, professors, academe, also rigor, assessment, achievement.

“The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is a creative link between two of the largest and most highly-funded institutional and social structures in our country: academia and prisons.”1

At a higher education in prison conference, summer 2014:

Faculty #1: A big limitation in college programs is lack of internet access.
Faculty #2: The internet is the modern modality for exploring the world.
CO #1: We don’t want to re-victimize someone. Inmates can use the internet to get in touch with their victims. Unless you can guarantee me 100% that the internet won’t be used to hurt, I won’t grant access.
CO #2: This is what criminals do on the internet. They will abuse it. Criminal minds will use it for their advantage.
Alum: I want to problematize the language being used here. I am highly offended by what you said. Let’s check how we are having this conversation. How do you balance security and self-actualization?

Caught in the conundrum of other and self, inside and out, you follow your colleague’s direction toward porosity: a refusal or at least a reconsideration of the existence of self and other, inside and out.  And you grope toward a conception of “self” and “other” as both distinct and not, or

every body “a ‘multiplicity of multiplicities.’ Every body is a heterogeneous and complex network of entities that is itself an entity or unit .… Far from being impenetrable castles with well defined boundaries defining what is inside and what is outside, bodies are permeable down to their most intimate recesses.  Bodies are more like sponges than marbles.  Even marbles are a sort of sponge2

A college student entitles her posting “Fear the fear”

I had a terrible nightmare after I came back from [my first day at] the prison that I dreamt about myself being a prisoner with death penalty, spending the last day of my life with my parents. The nightmare was not as scary as some of my other nightmares that I was chased by killers or my life was in danger yet it still scared me more than any other dreams.

I did not actually feel the difference between the class in prison and the class here in Bryn Mawr because both classes are engaging and thought-provoking. I was surprised by how women in the prison recognized their status and paralleled their experiences with class reading. However, I was shocked by my own dream that I suddenly realized deep in my consciousness, I was scared by the difference between them and us. I was further scared by how subtle our fear could be hidden and how much did our fear change us unconsciously. And I think that is exactly how culture works in our everyday life.3ttong,


Back at the prisonAfter you put your papers, pencils, books through the electronic scanner (all inside the transparent plastic bag, until they disallow this, before they again allow it, sometimes), you wade through the body scanner, then hands out to the sides, step closer for a patdown, shoulders arms torso legs, oddly gentle, get your hand stamped, and are buzzed inside along with your compatriots and others in uniform — an officer, black-robed chaplain, heavily veiled woman who runs Muslim services — through the first heavy-duty metal door and before the second, and you can still see back to the waiting room and glimpse the outside door beyond that.  You are situated between these two, the outside and the inside, visible to other shadowy uniformed figures in a glassed-in techni-tower above and before you.  You might get buzzed through again quickly, then move through the second heavy-duty door into the hallway and the next patdown and ultraviolet before the elevator takes you up.  Or you could wait in this linoleumed square, maybe 5’ x 5’ for some immeasurable time, smelling a lunch of fish and something starchy mixing with ammonia and, faintly, hygiene products, and it is during this time that you lose your capacity to speak lightly to your colleagues and to think of anything really except confinement.

Being in class (2):

We discuss Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness.  Only two people had the book, did the reading, so we read together a passage about Mock seeing her dad as her dad, then her discovery that people on the block see him as “that crackhead.” Two women talk about themselves as a “crackhead” or “dope fiend.” I’m not this anymore, says one, and, People have all these different sides of themselves: although I’m wearing blue now, this isn’t who I am.  And another, slowly enunciating:

I need to acknowledge this as a reality I’ve lived in order to challenge and change it.  I’m wearing blue and this is who I am, at least for now, and knowing that is an important part of my being able to “redefine [my] realness.”  I am not a mom right now because I’m here, not with my children.  And my oldest, my daughter won’t talk to me, she hasn’t forgiven me for those years when I cared more about getting high than about being a mom.

You stop listening; think of your oldest, your daughter.  You are moms here together, sitting in this bare box with college students who might be but are not our birth children.  Jane Maher writes about using autobiographical essays to teach writing to women in prison:

Try pointing out a run-on sentence or ask for clarifying details in an essay that described a scene in the prison visiting room during which an 11-year-old daughter asked her mother, who has a life sentence, what would become of her body when she died in prison” (82-3).

You lean forward to insist (but is this intrusive/too certain/wrong?), You are a mom.  Your daughter wouldn’t be not talking to you if she didn’t know you are her mom. She shifts in her seat, mm.


At the conference on higher ed in prison, a CO sitting on a panel with her deputy commissioner in the room: Corrections is like another planet. Here a spoon is a spoon is a spoon. There, a spoon is a weapon. You need to think about things you would have no reason to think about anywhere else.


You struggle to acknowledge these wildly divergent yet intersections: ng perspectives: the yearning mom, the spoon.  Look to the words of the colleague who brought you into this work:

Restorative justice principles suggest that crime … breaks relationships ….r estorative values include respect, care, self-determination, participation, interconnectedness, and humility …. responding to crime requires responding to the unjust social context in which it occurs …. Restorative Justice Pedagogy aims to use restorative justice knowledge as a way to empower people to build relationships, communities, and leaders and to prevent future harm ….. The RJP experience speaks to the importance of creating community in the classroom to facilitate the openness and sharing necessary for personal transformation. (2-3)

What earlier mother-daughter relationship might be “restored” here?  In your own parenting, there is much that you suspect neither you nor your daughter would want to return to.  And too the difficult question of who will rebuild this relationship, “prevent future harm.”  “Transformation” makes you uneasy, with its resonances of conversion, of change on some cellular level, suggesting a mythical skid-free future, “a hall pass through history” (Coates, Between, p.?).

Lesson Plan for Fri., 3/20/15:

I. Two weeks ago we asked for some writing:
Pick one scene from your life, and tell that story.
Then comment on the ways in which you have
made it real (or decided not to….)
We were asking about representation…
anyone want to read these….?

You play “2 truths and a lie” in small groups.  All the lies have a ring of truth: plausibility lies with the listener.

This week many have read the book, so you plunge in via the title: Redefining Realness is about the question of what is “real” for Janet Mock, a trans woman of color who grew up working class and poor in Hawaii and Los Angeles; who is she “really”? What is the truth here?  You probe: What makes someone really a woman? How much does this have to do with genetics, how much with choices, with presenting yourself, with products of presentation; is that hyper-feminine woman in the peach gown on the book’s cover really her?  Clearly, she’s female!  But: she has to go further in showing she’s a woman, because she isn’t really a woman. Janet Mock isn’t and never will be truly female, because of her “equipment.” Though she had “the surgery.”  But: what part of all this does genitalia play in “realness”?

II.  Two main ideas to work with: passing/not being read:

“Dorian Corey … describes ‘realness’ for trans women (known in ball culture as femme queens) as being ‘undetectable’ to the ‘untrained’ or ‘trained.’ Simply, ‘realness’ is the ability to be seen as heteronormative, to assimilate, to not be read as other or deviate from the norm. ‘Realness’ means you are extraordinary in your embodiment of what society deems normative” (p. 116).

“These thoughts surrounding identity, gender, bodies, and how we view, judge, and objectify all women brings me to the subject of ‘passing,’ a term based on an assumption that trans people are passing as something that we are not ….This pervasive thinking frames trans people as illegitimate and unnatural. If a trans woman who knows herself and operates in the world as woman is seen perceived, treated, and viewed as a woman, isn’t she just being herself? She isn’t passing; she is merely being” (p. 155).

On co-constructing ourselves, in relationship with others:

“When I think of this time with Wendi, I’m reminded of a line from Toni Morrison’s Sula: ‘Nobody was minding us, so we minded ourselves.”‘I was her sister, and she didn’t want to leave me behind. We needed each other to create who we were supposed to be” (p. 135).

You talk about “heteronormativity” –- parse for meaning at the college, the prison, get into a spirited discussion of the heavy presence of masculine clothing and body products in the women’s jail.  Why is this, and what does it mean? They don’t want us to look and feel attractive, female.  Don’t want us to be attractive or attracted to each other. Even the deodorant is male, everything. Easier and cheaper to buy massive quantities of what the men use.  Still: I know I’m attractive.  And it’s not really about my equipment.

This is a space where women sit with each other, think and laugh and listen, shoot out sharp words (and once, waiting for the first class of the semester, someone punches someone in the nose), push and cajole and appreciate each other, and sometimes there is touch.  Touch is forbidden: sitting by so the thighs touch, maybe tops of arms, holding hands, any kind of little stroking of skin, of course hugs.  This desire for touch, for skin to skin somehow so dangerous that the late-shift CO –- usually so calm and clear –- goes off on the cuddling, threatens that if she sees this again someone won’t be allowed back to class.  Love, lust, contact, caring, connection; desire desire desire.  Even the flat blue, squared out clothes elastic wasteband no hugging of the body can’t diminish all that flesh of many shades and textures.  In closing circle she says that she’s never been like that but now there’s this woman here, describes her strong body and her attitude.  Connection and power lurk here, the power to touch, to prohibit touch, to desire.

V. Write a story about when you were a different version of yourself.
Go ’round and share something of what you wrote.

In the end, you don’t (re)define “realness.”

‘The purpose of art,’ James Baldwin wrote, ‘is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.’  He might have been channeling Dostoyesky’s statement that ‘we have all the answers.  It’s the questions we do not know’ (Rankine, 115).

The discussion of what’s “real” seems to you like this:  Circling answers together (biological “equipment,” clothing and other accouterments, how you see yourself, how others see you) takes you all behind the curtain, to a place of questions, impolitic questions about commerce, desire, power.

You visit with your mom and her friend – 88 and 93 respectively – at her friend’s “home,” a cell-like room in the basement of a facility where the upper floors are swanky, the lower floors not.  Your mom’s friend, now in a wheelchair, has a worn hardback copy of Finnegan’s Wake lying open on her bed.  Her ankle is bruised and swollen from yet another fall, still she is elegant.  She is the mom of an eminent queer theorist, was also your high school English teacher, and when she asks questions about your class at the prison, you don’t evade these as you so often find yourself doing; instead you describe our discussions of Redefining Realness.  Later, you go buy her a copy, knowing that she will read you reading.

Interlude: inside and out

All this time one participant, an effervescent trans woman of color, is not with the class, since she’s at trial.  Which several of you read about compulsively online in “most viewed stories.”  You are angry that the media uses over and over a single photograph, somber and frightening: full frontal, rounded forehead, heavy jaw, eyes flat.  A mug shot?

Then you hear she’s back but staying apart, gathering herself, and then she returns to your group, post trial with her hair in a natural and quieted now, dealing with the looming threat of a sentence so long you are shocked.  At issue in the courtroom, says the media, has been her “not showing remorse.”  Back on the block, post-trial and pre-sentencing, she asks you to submit petitions attesting to her character. You are happy to see her, note her muted demeanor, and feel that desire to do whatever you can to help. Simple as that.  Though of course it’s not at all simple. Your crew checking in afterwards split and conflicted, and then as you check with others, only moreso:  The most experienced prison educator you know warns that she never does this kind of thing, since it smacks of favoritism, and can endanger the program; your colleague’s husband, a lawyer, warns that judges resent letters from people who know little of the case or the defendant, and this could well backfire.  Your son says to step back, you’re charmed by her. You all discuss, vacillate, finally lie by omission.

Your colleague reports a heavy early morning dream: in prison, on an elaborate staircase — we were going up, as the women were going down. We were bringing in Easter baskets, but not getting them delivered. We were in a train station and had missed the train.

At the end of an early semester inside, our college students realize that we might be compounding an already distressing power imbalance.  Weigh our inside arts-based curriculum, focused on reflection and tailored to squeak through the narrow window of institutional approval, against the college curriculum of shared political analysis.  You get a knot in your belly. Remember that the women inside expressed great appreciation for this opportunity to work with fewer words, with images. How to balance needs, imagine new ways in?  That night you email your mentor, Michelle Fine, who writes back quickly, notes the delicacy of working with a CO in the space, and suggests asking the college students to write about “conversations you wish you could’ve had” with the women in the jail:

“A conversation about racism and sexism in America, especially sexism.  I wanted them to explore how their crime is related to concrete, named circumstances greater than the individual’s wrong-doing.”

“I wish I was brave enough to share experiences I had in common and to admit some of my own faults to make the conversation more equal.”

“Do you like us?  Why?  Do you think we’re better (cooler, smarter…) than you?  * can be directed either way.”

“I wish we could’ve talked about the tension of bryn mawr students being able to leave at the end of the day. Or the broad topic of power relations between us.”

“A conversation about ways the prison/justice system could improve.  A conversation about fighting the system.”

“I think I really wanted to talk about the social forces/institutions/environments surrounding these women’s experience and choices…it just made me feel so trapped and sad to hear the internalized self-blame rhetoric… [I wanted] to lighten the weight I felt in their hearts and voices.”


Your students balk at the women blaming themselves, making sense of their troubles in religious terms rather than via political analysis:

I think about these frustrations I have and I am torn. I want to condemn religion for encouraging self-responsibility, but I also want to celebrate its ability to help these women cope. 4HSBurke,

Religious language suggests the possibility of redemption — a sense of future return on investment, spiritual and otherwise.  There’s a longing here, a capacity to imagine another version of your life, your self.  What’s the relationship between this willingness to step into desire and a political analysis that slices into history to lay bare present-day injustices?

Michelle Fine and her university-based colleagues design and implement a collaborative research project with incarcerated women.  When outside researchers are disturbed by

the resonances between the ‘discourses of redemption’ used by inside researchers and other discourses blaming poor women for their troubles, inside researchers remind them that most of the women here have committed crimes. The discourse of redemption serves as a ‘powerful coping strategy for women desperate to understand themselves as separate from the often destructive behavior that led them to prison.’ This recognition paves the way to rereading the data in search of ‘connective tissue’ between past and present selves, bringing social context, community, and history into the ‘present, ever-changing self.'5Fine et. al, 106-107

In his powerful writings on racial history and the argument for reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates slams the seductive turn toward redemption as a false salve, bringing instead an unrelentingly realistic analysis of race and class politics in this country that won’t let you hold onto anything redemptive.


A student in her first semester with the program says she feels “relaxed” in prison, much more so than at the college, where she feels she’s losing a power struggle with a professor.  A friend with decades of experience teaching inside says that she “loves being in jail,” where the expectations are lower than in the academyAnother student recommits to her college career because of her engagement at the prison; talks about how “real” prison seems to her, mostly because it is so “raw,” less filtered, restrained, anxious than college classrooms.   How much of your being here is because of this sense of emotional access, its feeling more porous, more open, more surprising than the “rigor” touted in institutions of higher ed?  And who is seeking redemption, –- even if of another sort?

Being in Class (3)

We are reading aloud a passage from Push, and the women can barely do this.  They’re hating it, and what they’re hating most is the language of Precious, the young narrator who opens with “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver …. I got suspended from school ‘cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair.  I ain’ did nothin’!”  In our reading there’s stumbling and laughter, embarrassment and rage: this is not proper English, how people talk not write, some people talk this way.  If someone comes up to me talking this way, I don’t even talk with them. Talk about why Sapphire chooses this language, why she couldn’t tell it in “proper English,” why the grammar gets better in the course of book as Precious learns.  But it makes me feel stupid to read it!  This is supposedly how black people talk. I don’t talk like this, I mean I might with some people.  What’s Black English?  I’m not black, I’m American.  I teach my daughter proper English!

You don’t talk about how Precious, who is sexually abused by her father, can also feel sexual in those scenes; how he is portrayed as vicious and uncaring, the mother as also abusive, deceitful, a “welfare queen”; how learning to read looks like the answer, though surely doesn’t create jobs or equitable policies.  Later you wonder whether our focus on language masked discomfort with other traumas, with charged representations of character and naïve presumptions about education.

You’ve never felt whiter; are full of heat now –- not about Push, which you could take or leave, but about language, real varied beautiful and nonstandard English, this language in the mouths of people disowned a second later, whispered in ears, breaths.  You try to intercede on behalf of some “other” whose language you feel compelled to defend: you raise questions about who “owns” English, who gets to say what’s “proper,” what’s acceptable to put in a book.  These questions ring false since they are not real questions, but rather your attempt to testify on behalf of this language that is not yours.

I teach my daughter proper English.  But last time she got on the phone with me she’s all ‘I be this, that’ — I’m like, what?! Let me talk to your father!

Let’s just agree: we’re not talking about this book next week!

Franz Fanon’s concept of the “epidermalization of inferiority” traces “the metaphorical absorption of racial inferiority through the skin and into the mind” ( Izarrary and Raible, 441).  Listening to urban students, Fine and Ruglis hear how external conditions “crossed membranes from what was outside the child, in the school building, to what was the child.” (24)

Prison educators take this on:

In his “Humiliation to Humility Pedagogy,” Gaskew draws on incarcerated Black men’s life experiences to investigate the “three dimensional elephant … racism, White supremacy, and White privilege” (71).  In the Medea project, Rhodessa Jones and Shawn Reynolds aim to uncover

the connections between an individual and the system of power,” believing that “understanding social context, moving with others and not alone — will transform the oppressed and apathetic into people who believe they can think and thus act for themselves and also for others…  6Fraden, 70

These are educators of color.  Teaching while white, you speak the language of interviews, of commercial exchange, of the courts.  You always see race — see colorfeatureshairtextures, see how racial difference animates a world of difference, see the daily risks of mothers, fathers, uncles of black children.


Except when you don’t.

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Nell Painter offers a chilling description of whiteness as a binary with a choice between bland culturelessness and venal racism, a “toggle between nothing and awfulness.” 7  A third option eschews a visceral involvement, acknowledging race privilege and racism, trying to “comply with the new rules of diversity” as though this is someone else’s problem.8  Absent still: an unnamed option swimming insistently at the edge of your peripheral vision, an opportunity to bring into focus a whiteness that contends with what is real and what is possible, necessary.

What of the White women in prison and in this classroom, strangely invisible in both the media and the literature?  So much of what’s being written is about men, African American and Latino, sometimes African American women and Latinas.  These white women aren’t Piper Kerman. One woman, has to be from Northeast Philly, telling us about how she’s never been like that but now so in love with a woman in here.  Another whose age is masked by her wispy hair around gone mouth folding in on itself, mumbling long stories about Catholic girlhood, ferociously grateful at the end of class.  The woman with tangled white-hair dreads, from a years-ago class, headed back out with no home, no idea where her son -– labeled schizophrenic — is, last she knew on the streets, and who says outloud with almost a sense of just speaking her interior:  you know, we all have one more crime in us.


Interlude:  the “criminal mind”

You tell this story at a conference. It is quickly queried by woman who was incarcerated for thirty years, now out and in school.  She asks instead, what crime might we be forced to commit, unable not to commit, given our circumstances?  The problem isn’t internal, is not about “criminal mind.”

This idea of “criminal mind” is a persistent fascination among some students who hear about our classes at the jail.  Calling up individual pathology rather than systemic scrutiny, it invites delectation and a respite from responsibility.  You question a psych major, pushing back on her desire to learn more about the criminal mind, and she doesn’t join the project after all; a missed opportunity for contact?

In gestalt, contact is desirable, a better state than alienation. Through a continual shifting of the “contact boundary” between self and other, environments, feelings and ideas, we can come to “experience in awareness,” and from this develop a capacity for change (  Like Fanon’s epidermalization, contact can become a metabolic process that travels beneath the skin, making possible an encounter that reformulates.  Contact is also neutral, since anything can happen here, and there is no recognition of power differentials.

In classrooms as “contact zones,” power relations become part of the equation (Pratt).  People are “transformed in and through the encounter as subjects” in a pedagogy of “unpredictability” (Gaztambide-Fernandez, 51).  What can be frightening and also beautiful here is this element of surprise in discovery —  not just of the other, but also of a self you haven’t known or been: the econ major whose hungry inquisitiveness resurfaces as a gentler desire for connection.

This process of re-encountering one another and our selves astonishes:  we all have one more crime in us, and likewise one more possibility, and another; in this process we mean and matter, and without guarantees of any kind.  Maybe this is its own redemption.


Being in class (3, again)

Later, you see layers: our different perspectives on language and power.  Beginning with your own history as an early devotee of James Baldwin, later a conflicted teacher of “Adult Basic Education” and then student of Literacy at the institution where white linguist William Labov claimed African American Vernacular English as a legitimate language – and also the histories of others here.  And since teaching is a practice of do-overs, you will share your own history, commitments, admirations more freely; admit resistance to their resistance; attend to what’s happening in our remaking of each other.

Lesson plan for 11/7/14:

I. Introductions

II. We promised not to go back to Push — but to
continue our conversation about language, &
when-and-why we use different forms of it

Describe June Jordan’s essay,
“Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,”
which opens with a story like what happened here last week:
she had assigned The Color Purple,
and her mostly urban black students said it didn’t sound right,
didn’t look right, that they could hardly read it … and didn’t like it

but once they started analyzing the language, they realized that it was perfect
for portraying the characters and their location (as we discussed about Push)
and also that they’d never learned to read and write
their own system of verbal communication: Black English (Jordan’s term)…

so Jordan designed and taught a new class on “The Art of Black English,”
in which the students excitedly figured out the rules and the values that it expressed
(person centered, present tense, clear communication…)

but then the brother of another student @ the college was killed by the police,
and they tried to write a letter of protest in Black English because….
Read excerpt starting @ top of p. 372:
“How best to serve the memory of Reggie Jordan?  Should we use the language of the killer–Standard English–in order to make our ideas acceptable to those controlling the killers?  But wouldn’t what we had to say be rejected, summarily, if we said it in our own language, the language of the victim, Reggie Jordan?  But if we sought to express ourselves by abandoning our language wouldn’t that mean our suicide on top of Reggie’s murder?  But if we expressed ourselves in our own language wouldn’t that be suicidal to the wish to communicate with those who, evidently, did not give a damn about us/Reggie/police violence in the Black community?  At the end of one of the longest, most difficult hours of my own life, the students voted, unanimously, to preface their individual messages with a paragraph composed in the language of Reggie Jordan. …With the completion of this introduction, nobody said anything.”

What would you say….?

III.  Other sources to refer to/distribute if/as needed:
NPR blog, “5 Reasons People Code Switch” and
blog entry from Adichie’s novel Americanah:
“To My Fellow Non-American Blacks:  In America, You Are Black, Baby”

IV. Write for 10 minutes about a time when you code switched:
tell that story by focusing on what you were trying to accomplish

think about your audience: who are you telling this story to?
what kind of language would best reach them?
(you could imagine that you are writing a blog!)

VII. Two visitors are going to teach us about another
kind of code-switching: using the language of developmental biology

VIII. Handouts: essays from next week’s visitors
writing to return, & “Willie Jordan,” if wanted

We read from the June Jordan piece, talk more explicitly now about language and power – about code-switching in jobs people have had and for jobs they desire, in home and stores and streets, here and in college, with different individuals. Again we are here and not-here.  The range of experience and knowledge in the room coming into greater focus, and with this an acknowledgement that those of us sitting here are in quite different relations to all this, not just by “inside” and “out” but also by gradations of race, class, education, family that signal whether you’re making, following, discerning the rules.  And the woman who describes herself as American not Black: A man from Walmart came into our work readiness class, I ask if he’d hire me given what he knows about me, he says yes; I say, Everyone coming to the cash register will speak you know, ghetto, what if I do that too, I mean that’s who I’ll be talking to, would I keep the job? No, he says.

Still: proper English is necessary to communicate with more people, such as someone from Germany who speaks English; and for success in society.  Still, you hear the whisper that someone’s better, smarter, something if using “proper English.”

So it’s easy and hard: we’re all teachers and all learners, yes, and structural racism and classism in the context of 21stcenturystyle mass incarceration keeps us in our discrete places.  But is there some way this contact among human beings sitting together in hard plastic chairs lit only from within can ripple out to disturb the very conditions of its existence?  (And what to do with the individual acts you don’t want to hear, acts of carelessness, selfishness, impulsivity, cruelty, all the more shadowy because you know that, if not protected by birth and material reality, you might be inside for half-forgotten crimes: DUI, drugs, harboring…)

If contact isn’t just epidermal but can go deeper, become our metabolizing of difference, of the external into our organs, then can teaching make this metabolic process visible and available as a working method?  There’s this indeterminacy:

‘How do we ever really know whether and how our actions lead to any kind of reconfiguration of ideas or restructuring of inequality? What kinds of new mythologies of the self are lurking behind what we decide to do and how we decide to proceed in the world? “(Gaztambide-Fernandez, 55-6).   Although “the differential resides in the place where meaning escapes any final anchor point, slipping away to surprise or snuggle inside power’s mobile contours”(Sandoval, 2000, p. 179), still: try to teach into the space of indeterminacy, neither refusing nor owning outcomes, opening up to what might occur.


Interlude:  poetry and porosity

“All entities or bodies are characterized by a porosity that allows the outer world to flow through them .… Entities flow through each other, influencing and modifying each other in all sorts of ways ….  In interfacing with other entities, these entities are transformed as they pass through the body becoming something else and taking on a new organization …. Yet that is not all. The material that passes through a body also transforms that body.” 9Alaimo,

We cannot trust the boundaries distinguishing inside from out.

You and your colleague acknowledge to each other those drifting dream-thoughts just before sleep:  yes, you are here on your own soft sheets with your bathroom down the hall and your sleep meds to take if needed, and yet just as you fall asleep you imagine yourself there, in that bunk, risking a flush in the night that might wake your cellee.  What are these walls separating in from out, you from me, so real and yet are they?

“Suddenly, things that you think of as real — this cat over here, my cat, whose fur I can stroke — become the abstraction, an approximation of flowing, metamorphic processes, processes that are in some sense far more real than the entity I am stroking …. The discovery of evolution is nothing less than a Copernican revolution, in which what we take to be immediate and real turns out to be an abstraction of a deeper reality …. our immediate experience is a workable approximation that makes sense only on a very limited island of meaningfulness …. What disappears is the commonsensical idea that what appears to be immediate is also real.” 10Morton, 19-21

In your dream you are a trans-prisoner: inside but allowed to leave at night, though this evening no, the guard on duty doesn’t know you, doesn’t care about your story…

You wake in your own bed with the light streaming in through the portal window and the door to the roof.  “The state of emergency is also always a state of emergence,” writes Rankine.11Citizen, 126  In emerging, you resist the instinct to brush away the mesh of co-habitation, look to recognize instead “the vital porosity that exists among all human groups in the twenty-first century.”12Mccarthy, Rezai-Rashti, and Teasley 2009, p. 93


Being in class (4)

On Good Friday yours is the only program to show up, and after some checking, they let you in.  You have forgotten to come up with an intro question, and when you invite one, a woman suggests “what Easter means to me.”  You say you’re Jewish and Easter is just quiet, and a college student who’s also Jewish loved the chocolate bunnies that are chocolate straight through, felt betrayed by the hollow ones.  A Chinese student learned about Easter in school, part of learning English.  Then a woman you’ve known for the longest, a warm-faced woman who is writing a children’s book, says she’ll be the first to talk about religion — “Thank you, Jesus!, who continues to die for my sins, which are many and continuing.”  Rush of laughter. And this seems to you part of the constant claim, from the women, the officers, the court, that people are here for a reason; and the laughter a valve momentarily releasing the pressure to take individual responsibility.  For your colleague, the holiday marks a brother’s death at 24: driving drunk on Saturday night, dying on Easter morning. Whose responsibility?

You invite in a colleague, a poet and teacher. She asks, If the sky were the color of your heart, what color would it be?  You make “masks” with your fingers over your faces, a way of getting new perspectives, until someone peels away her fingers, says I’m still in jail.  You read aloud a poem, in which the window speaks, and the “still in jail” woman says, If these walls could talk ….  The poet talks about being able to travel in your imagination, not to run away from your current reality, but also not to believe that it is the only reality.

At the end of your session, she asks you all to write a second time, but not to share it.


Interlude:  credit/no credit

You tussle with the credit/no credit question.  Your “program” is really just a class, now two, and your college has committed to supply books and writing materials for the year, but this is temporary and credit isn’t even on the table.  You’re trying to connect with a community college program that maybe could count your classes…

But there’s the one woman who struggles to read, wow can she sing, and a woman who looks so tired she can’t hold her head up; lost her glasses, can’t see the print; speaks in Spanish to your student; is always on page one; and want to be in this classroom space.  What about access for those who can’t jump the hoops for the for-credit program: disqualified by debt, too young too old, didn’t graduate high school, didn’t pass the entrance exam…?

You listen in on an online conversation going on among folks doing education in prisons, in response to the news that Pell Grants might be reinstated  “on an experimental basis” for some incarcerated students. There is hope, also questions about how governmental support might impact program quality.  And the issue of who deserves free education is a hot one –- among prison employees, whose own families might not be able to afford college, and also among your students.


A corrections officer at the higher ed in prison conference:

I still have mixed feelings about education in prison. My daughter and I paid for our own education, and she is still paying off her loans. They are receiving a gift that they haven’t earned, through their behavior, and they need to pay that forward; there needs to be a citizenship component.

And back in our college classroom, a student speaks passionately about her family: her immigrant mom (husband in prison), her brothers and sisters, aunts, cousins – who will pay for their education?  Others argue that this is a false opposition: none of these people are winners, only global capitalism winning here.

You have a disturbing exchange of emails with the person who runs the community college for-credit prison education program, which is understaffed, in its last year of funding, and frustratingly stymied by issues of disqualification on the way in and rising debt and other challenges on reentry.  Their completion stats are dismal.  These difficulties stem from a snarl of obstacles seemingly disconnected from the intent of the program and its funders, and contradictory to wider claims about the value of education:

Statistical evidence overwhelmingly confirms that a college education reduces recidivism, increases employment opportunities, and strengthens communities.  The Justice-In-Education Initiative seeks to provide greater educational opportunities to those who are or have been incarcerated, as well as to enrich the academic life of faculty and students wishing to engage in issues of contemporary justice.  13

Being in class (5)

You are reading Good Kings, Bad Kings, a novel told from the perspectives of teenagers and staff in an institution for juveniles with disabilities.  A woman who has worked for decades in rehab proposes the intro question:  If you were disabled, would you want to be institutionalized or cared for by family?  Most of you choose an institution — for fear of burdening our families — although later, digging into the novel, you also acknowledge the dangers and problems of “the system” in such a place.

Women arrive slowly, one tells you she “ratted out” the C.O. who tried to prevent her from coming to class; sent a note to the major, as he had told her to.  Another who enters always with a long, lilting “heyyyy,” is in-and-out today three times, and inbetween socializes loudly in the hallway. The repeated interruptions aggravate you.

You name the “bad kings,” people who run systems and make money from them, yet they too are pieces in a larger game.  Would your judgment of them change if you heard their stories?  Your student says, the story doesn’t justify the actions. You take it to the penal system, note that it’s not random who’s inside.  Not the COs either, you think.

The writing prompt is a passage about being in solitary confinement inside the institution, and you hear about spending two and a half years in solitary, learning to be closer to God, to know herself better, to feel free when she’s “just in jail,” to love.  And: We are not taught to be by ourselves, what does it matter if your movement is restricted? You’ll get out later … now, read a book.  Now when I close my eyes I can identify sounds, I know which guard it is by their walk.

In your planning session you debate what to do with the in-and-out woman: feel she’s disrupting, using you to get off the unit, but hate to further constrain freedom of movement.  When on Friday she enters and announces she’s just here to get the new book, your colleague follows her into the hallway and says (as you’ve agreed) that you’re offering a book group, value her contributions but not the interruptions; she nods, understands, says she’s researching her case. Your colleague feels like a CO calling her out.

In search of your own connections with disability, you begin with head-shaking –- no, you don’t have these experiences –- and then one by one uncover forgotten connections: the way she compensated for a loss of hearing at age 10, the fear in her family that the new baby could inherit schizophrenia.  Disability, especially disability that comes with aging, creates a kind of porosity among you.


Interlude:  dining out

You drink wine and consume pan-Asian with a group that includes your colleagues and students along with a visiting speaker:  a luminary, an older African American scholar whose work on race, class, and incarceration reveals deep historical fault lines, cavernous in the present. By you sits a student who has found a location — found herself really — in our prison work. Over sesame noodles and tofu you talk about an article you read for class on the corporatization of schooling in New Orleans (Buras), then segue into conversation about your feelings toward the correctional officers.  Joining you, the luminary speaks eloquently about the necessity to critique these “guardians of the state,” despite their raced and classed resemblances to the women they guard. You are quiet but your student speaks up passionately for the complex positions and lives of the COs.  The luminary listens carefully, accedes.

As you draft this chapter, President Obama announces the experimental Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, to be made available to a “limited number of prisoners.”  Education Secretary Arne Duncan argues for this on the grounds that “America is a nation of second chances” and that “it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.” 14  This appeal to national pride on behalf of a humanitarianism embedded in individualism, sharpened by capitalism seems formulated to cut across divisions in the populace.

Tyrone Werts’ sentence was commuted after 37 years in a maximum security men’s prison in your state. While inside, he played an active role in the Inside-Out Program, and on the outside he works with a reentry program.  Tyrone talks about the impact of education on men inside, noting that “those guys who went to college in prison and those guys who didn’t go to schoo l… think totally different.” 15

“Thinking totally differently” might well lines up well with reduced recidivism and expenditures, but begins from a different pivot point, opens up to a radically wider view. The difference in orientation is striking.

There’s excitement on the higher ed in prison websites.  You hope, maybe, a fissure in the walls…

Being in class (6)

You enter with cardboard boxes: cupcakes with crazy colored icing and Philly pretzels with mustard, soda: a celebration for our last day of this school year.  You are in the gym –- displacing the much larger Muslim religious group, and you hear complaints about this in the waiting area — because this is the only place you can bring food.

A large echo-y room where we converge under basketball hoops. The loudspeaker periodically statics out your conversation, a kind of blackout poetry in motion. Is the guard who tilts back on his chair outside the glass enclosure close enough to hear?

Your book is Orange is the New Black, you’re ready with questions and critique. When the first response is “this is prison lite,” many nod.  Then she offers in a feathery voice, dazzling smile: I identified with this book, I feel just like Piper!

What?! You’re not like her, she has this, we don’t have any of that!  (Not to mention that she’s white, comes from wealth, goes back to wealth and safety of a kind that seems just a fantasy from here.)  Maybe because her prison is federal, they do say that’s different.

I wish I was on as much Prozac as you must be!

No, she says, living here –- in jail –- it’s living, for now, living where I am and experiencing what’s here, being here.

(Yes, and 17-30 years, depending.)

A woman in a black headscarf calls out:  Oh no, I’m not doing that, they’ve got you institutionalized.

Oh no, do not say that to me!

And later, your colleague:  In what ways are we also becoming (or how are we already) institutionalized?

“Even those with genuine interest in change operate within the landscape of educational and correctional racism and classism … all players within the free market, creating a contradiction that is not often discussed: the interests in fighting ‘the system’ are tempered by the fact that those actors are themselves ‘the system’ and operate within the rabbit hole of the free market.” (Fasching-Varner et. al, 423)

Down this rabbit hole, the conversation winds deeper: Some women talk about what they’ve done to get here –- answering the question we don’t ask –- and a college student, passionately:  College students are doing a lot of this same stuff on our campuses, the drugs at least, and they’re there, not here!  We talk about who is here and who is not, who is living here and who refuses, the many names of refusal tattooed on arms, bellies, breasts.

A woman, animatedly: Mostly I just sleep, that’s the only way I can get through the time.  (Just last week you learned from your students that this woman — mostly absent from our class this semester, or sitting silent and disengaged, or walking out — was an energized, highly involved participant in the other class last semester.)

Side-stepping the split between abolitionists and prison educators, Angela Davis maintains that we should work to “create more humane, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system” (Are Prisons Obsolete? 103).  And your colleague:  But making this environment “more habitable” can indeed help to make it more permanent.

Again: the problem of our being here.

You have pulled in tight to hear each other over the crabby PA, sweet and saltymelding on our tongues as you struggle with our lives and beyond our lives, with what we can do here and how to change this system in which we’re all — with increasing clarity –- interconnected.  And you’re feeling that not unfamiliar sense that even as you all reach hard, the questions too are hard, so gnarled and knotty, until finally she breaks in, the continuing sinner who you’ve known since coming here, who’s been here years longer than anyone is supposed to stay:  No wait, and you’ve never heard her talking urgent like this: Can I just say something?  What I do, what we try to do is connect with each other, I try to be there for you…

All are listening now.

Like I’ll say your name for something good, I’ll let you know about an opportunity, I’ll stick with you … we got more power together.

Weaving between what is immediately available as a story — and what your imaginations are reaching toward.

The end of class is rushed: the officer off shift but his replacement not here, so he’s on you to leave.  You go around, say a word about where you are:  troubled, angry, complicated, upset … not the litany of inspired, content, thankful from other classes.  A lanky and regal woman who often brings a sharp social analysis gives you this feedback for next semester:  You’ve brought us books that really delve into the questions, now we need some solutions!

And then they are gone and you are emerging through gates and into the balmy brightness of a May afternoon.  It is the Friday before graduation, and one of your students, a senior whose focus and ebullience has helped to carry your group, is crying, hard.

[red flower]

Begin again, with power, relationship, and transitivity:

One of your students tells this story:

In our small group there were two college students and one incarcerated woman. When it came time to present our work, that woman said, well I’m the only one in this group so I’ll have to present! I said what do you mean, we’re here, and she said, yeah but you’ll be walking outtahere, we won’t be partying with you tonight.

We develop relationships that occupy the space in between, that holding space of interactional possibility.  Inside, one of the women has written a children’s book and seeks our advice, another shares the graphic novel she’s working on, inspired by Persepolis; on the outside, women’s lives take them into nearby neighborhoods, and you catch sight of a familiar shoulder in the Italian market, your student is sure she glimpses someone on the train, meets another in her social work placement.  There is joy and connection here, longing, questions.

During the lesson planning class [in the jail] when someone stood up to be the teacher, watching her move around the classroom animatedly made me realize that movement is something we actually may not want to worry about restricting. I get the sense movement/closeness of bodies is so heavily policed already, by specifically shying away from activities involving more free movement, we are perpetuating this body policing. 16sara.gladwin,

We make decisions about our class sessions –- to include more movement, to bring in poetry or biology, to question the system we are part of –- and yet we hit walls.

In our last week of the book club, we talked more explicitly about the system of mass incarceration than ever before …. It was heartening to hear women speak about the system, and exciting to hear a woman ask how we fight the system. However, that question also upset me because I do not know the answer. 17HCRL,

As we “attempt to walk [and live] on the rickety bridge between self and other,” sometimes it feels impossible to grasp both awareness of power relations and interactional possibility, and yet knowing this contradiction intimately, again and again, is what we are doing here.18Phelan, 174

And just as you come to see how power must shape the curriculum, you stop short: don’t join “the church of ‘everything is fucked up, so throw up your hands,” another form of “anesthesia” (Coates).  Ongoing effort that insists on neither abjuration nor absolution is hard to come by.  And perhaps requires a different grammar:

More common in romance languages than in English, the verb form of solidarity — to solidarize with — is a transitive verb .…. The questions that transitivity suggests have to do with our willingness to act in the world, to use Stuart Hall’s (1986) famous words, ‘without guarantees.’ What unimagined and unimaginable outcomes might become available if we were willing to risk the possibility that we simply do not know where we are going?  19Gaztambide-Fernandez, 54-55


At the end of our session, the poet asks us to write a second time, but not to share. We all have to plan our exits, she says.

“The true leap consists in introducing invention into existence” (Fanon, qutd in Gaztambide-Fernandez, 61).

You stand at Holmesburg Station, and it is cold and windy, hot and still; empty because you’ve just missed the train back into the city.


This is a haunted station, the roofs of old factory buildings just visible over the barren rise of gravel and weeds and iron tracks, and you think, the trains don’t run here anymore.  There is no way back.  You think this as the express goes by at a speed so fast and frightening it’s like a cartoon of energy moving through a sound barrier.

Footnotes   [ + ]

4 comments on “Being Here

  1. Alli Crandell

    the last line, echo into this next picture – full scale.Reference

  2. Alli Crandell

    Same as intro for silence. There is a naming. Space this out.Reference

  3. Alli Crandell

    Extra space.Reference

  4. Alli Crandell

    Extra space — here.Reference