Interlude: inside and out

All this time one participant, an effervescent trans woman of color, is not in 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:

HSBurke

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.1

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.”2

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.

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?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?

  1. HSBurke, “After last class…,” November 9, 2013 (2:32 p.m.), accessed May 20, 2016.
  2. Fine et. al, “Participatory Action Research: From Within and Beyond Prison Bars, “ in Working Method: Research and Social Justice, ed. Lois Weis and Michelle Fine (New York: Routledge, 2004 ), 106-107.