The Keys

The prison visits were the most educational part of my last job.  The prisoners we would interact with were fathers.  We were supposed to give them surveys so that we could report on their attitudes about parenting.  Some of them had participated in parenting classes while at the prison, and some had not.

All the researchers were women.  All the prisons we visited were men’s prisons, medium and minimum security.  We were told to dress modestly.  We were told to keep our last names and addresses to ourselves.  We made a lot of jokes, but we covered up, ankles to necks.

Part of the reason we were going was our literacy.  To get the information we needed, we were to read questions aloud to the men, if they couldn’t read well.

Prison campuses are a lot like college campuses.  Open areas of green.  Little bedrooms.  Libraries.  Murals painted on gym walls.

They are like high schools, too, with those long, round-seat cafeteria tables that fold up in half and tall.  They are places where people have to be observed and managed carefully, to prevent violence.

Of the three prisons, two felt good and one felt wrong.  I’m going to attribute this to an outrageous generalization: there are two kinds of prison guards.   (This works for most authority figures– teachers, police officers– but we’ll stick with prison guards mostly.)

The first kind longs to create order.  They have sought authority to create order.  For a vulnerable community, order is safety.  Order is justice.  Order is peace.

The second kind like to break things.  Authority figures get to break things, and people, and they’re more likely to get away with it than the average person.  The second kind like to intimidate and humiliate, and they don’t even know, or care, that intimidation and humilation are dangerous.  Not just for the victim.  For everyone.

Knowing how to structure human interaction so that calm reigns is an art.  It’s hard skill to teach.  I think some people’s egos are too bruised or too weak to manage great disparities of power, like those that exist between guards and inmates, teachers and students, or police officers and citizens.  When I visited, I met prison guards and leaders who reeked of peace like a Zen master.  And guards who seemed edgy.  If there’s anything a prison needs, it’s peace.  A lot of people are in there because their peace meters ran on empty too long.

Every year I have my students watch a documentary called “What I Want My Words to Do To You.”  Eve Ensler, later to become famous as the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” led a writing group in a women’s maximum security prison, and the 2003 film shows how writing affected the inmates.  It gives a voice to people who are usually forgotten.  Being forgotten might be part of their punishment.  The problem is that they have a lot to teach us.

Even if you’re not a squishy rehabilitiative-minded liberal, like me, you ought to wonder what people in prison are thinking because you’re paying their rent.  You’re buying them breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Those meals could be nourishing them along the way to self-improvement, or they could be feeding their anger.  Most people in prison get out.  Few of them are locked up forever.  Eventually, they’re going to be your neighbors and your coworkers.

In the documentary, all the women take responsibility for their choices.  That might make it easier for some people to watch.  The women don’t complain about false accusations or bad influences who controlled them.  On the other hand, I’m not sure why people think everyone in prison should take full responsibility for all their choices, though.  Most people on the outside don’t.

People in physical prisons, and all the other kinds, too, need structured, peaceful places.  Without structure and peace, it’s very difficult to be honest.  And without honesty, how can anyone change?  The people who keep some of our prisons structured and peaceful don’t get much respect.  The value of their contribution far exceeds the recognition they receive.

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