Every other Wednesday for about a year, I’ve been leading a writing workshop for female inmates at a prison in Boston. Most of the women are awaiting sentencing for one thing or another or are being detained because of their immigration status. I never really know what they are in for unless they tell the group, but from what I’ve gauged by their writing and sharing, most are in on drug-related charges.
My classroom is a big space at the bottom of a set of stairs. The women are brought in by a guard through an upper level and as they walk down the stairs and sit down at metal tables with stools nailed into the floor, I try to figure out who the hecklers and naysayers might be as I attempt to lead them through something different and meaningful for 45 minutes. They are white, black, Latino, gay, straight, old and painfully young. There are missing teeth, scars, and track marks. There are three different colored jumpsuits that designate what units they are in based on their crime. After almost a year, I still can’t remember what color means what. All I know is that all their sneakers are exactly the same no matter what color they wear.
On my first day of teaching, one of the woman was having a hard time reading the handout I had given them. I noticed her struggling and offered her my reading glasses. On my way out, all puffed-up and proud of my first class, Officer Steve, who has now become my prison guardian angel, pulled me aside.
“Please tell me you didn’t give that inmate your glasses to borrow.”
“These women are not your friends AND she could have used those glasses to attack someone. Those are contraband.”
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” I say with great shame and slight panic.
I suddenly felt like what all of us bleeding heart volunteers must have looked like to Officer Steve. I felt like I was in a bad movie about a teacher forced to teach the bad kids. He told me not to worry, that I couldn’t have possibly known, and that I’d catch on. If it WERE a movie, it would have been the time for him to wink. But you know, it was real life.
(I should also note that the inmates have to write with prison-issued pens that are supposed to bend if you go to stab someone.)
The class was initially pitched as a “sensory memoir writing” class. I had handouts, I read from a book that I thought was relevant to them, had them write some before and after pieces and had them share if they were willing. In my life, both personally and professionally, I’ve heard every hard luck story ever told. I flinch at nothing and I never look at anyone with pity or judge them for the parts they’ve played in making their own bad luck. I certainly know enough that it’s not okay for me to hug and soothe a weeping prisoner after she’s shared a gut-wrenching story despite every ounce of strength it takes for me not to.
There are classes where one woman will steal the show with humor and candor. My absolute favorite was a gender-neutral, maybe 22-yr old, who wrote about her father (interestingly enough, when I used to have the women write about a favorite memory, fathers and grandmothers were remembered most fondly). Somehow it came up in the story that her father had something like 17 kids and when we all gasped she responded by saying, “My father was a rollin’ fuckin’ STONE!” Doesn’t get much better than that.
Now, as I’ve gotten completely comfortable in front of women who I see only once as they cycle through their “orientation” to prison life, classes are a bit more free form and I’m finding that more and more of them are willing to share what they’ve written which inevitably leads to some incredibly poignant discussions.
I would have to say that 80% of the women I’ve taught are mothers. I would have to say that 60% of THEM are drug addicts who have had their kids taken away. Every single one HATES themselves for the kind of mother they’ve become. They know that they are good mothers when they are sober, but, their addiction screams louder than their kids. It amazes me that despite how happy they are to be clean and getting help in prison, they always seem to speak of it as a temporary thing. They don’t think they would be themselves if they weren’t on the street hustling or giving a stranger a blowjob. They have said that they would feel like impostors if they tried to be anyone else.
Yesterday, I wanted to talk to them about “judgement–” what had they been judged for, unfairly, in the past based on their looks or circumstance. I first ask them to judge ME, based on seeing me for the very first time. I got some great answers, some funny (they said my hair made me look like I had spent some time on the streets) and some things that were rather flattering. What I DIDN’T want to look like was yet another person from the outside coming to tell them how to live their lives. I had one woman say that the jury was still out on whether I was one of those or not. By the end of class, when I asked them to tell me their opinion of me after they had spent that time with them, they said that basically I had broken the mold, and then threw some compliments at me that made me cry.
When the prison was first built right next to an exit ramp I used every day, I watched a woman on the lawn outside the barbed wire fence, waving her arms to a male inmate in a window above. I found that to be, and still do when I think about it, an incredibly romantic act. It’s not really a HAPPY image, but there was great loyalty in it and it really touched me. I hate that I connect with 15-20 women every 2 weeks, and know that I will most-likely never see them again. Every once in a while I will Google to see what I can find out based on the name on a writing exercise and I’ve never really been able to find much. I want to think of them with their children flinging themselves into their arms on their day of release, but fear that won’t be enough to sustain them for too long. I do know, however, that they have taught me a hell of a lot more than I could possibly have taught them in the course of 45 minutes and I will be forever grateful for having known them.