When I go to the prison to teach my writing workshop it’s not as simple as just walking through the sliding doors at the entrance and breezing past a person at a desk with a quick wave and a smile. It is a very deliberate process, which after many months, I’ve pretty much gotten down. I wait in line, sometimes behind an attorney, sometimes behind a family member of an inmate who is told that they have to wait until visiting hours in order to see the person they just took several buses and trains to see. The guards who staff the desk have to take their time to follow all of the unique steps of each visitor. You can’t get pissed at them like you might a supermarket checkout person in training. In this context, it’s pretty critical that they follow the rules and not miss a beat.
At this point I already know to have my driver’s license out of my wallet to exchange for my purple-ribboned badge, with a very bad laminated picture that identifies me as a volunteer. I get my locker key and throw everything in except for a pencil, a notebook and my reading glasses. (I keep my fingers crossed that an inmate in my class won’t suddenly go on a rampage, grab my pencil and start stabbing the rest of us in the neck and eyes. I keep a VERY close eye on it.)
This past week there was a guard at the desk who I had not seen before. He was frazzled and flustered in a way that the unflappable and very sweet Luis never is. As he was attempting to untangle my purple id tag from the orange ones which were tangled with the blue ones, a guard emerged from a side door and asked all of us to step back behind a stanchion. There was more hubbub than I had yet to experience during my time there and the woman who I report to, who has become a friend, told me that it was “Release Day” for the male inmates. Soon, a line of men, mostly black and Latino in their twenties and thirties, dressed in street clothes, began to file through the door, while a guard said “Congratulations” as each one passed. In all there were about twelve, some with grins on their faces, some just staring straight ahead. Everyone around me seemed unfazed by what was occurring right in front of their eyes, the officers and staff having witnessed this procession endless amounts of times. To me, it was one of the most profound things I had ever seen and has left me with a sense of non-closure, never knowing what will happen to these men on the “outside.”
By then my badge had been found. I walked through the metal detector escorted by the supervisor of the program I volunteer for and waited while the security officer pressed a button that opens an old and clunky sliding door. When it closed behind us, I flipped my badge at the next checkpoint and waited for the next old and clunky sliding door to open, where I was taken up by elevator to my class.
The group seemed bigger than usual—about 17 or so women, somewhat indistinguishable from all the other classes I’ve taught. As usual, there were always some who said “Good morning,” or complimented me on my clothes, and always the one who wouldn’t smile, would roll her eyes the second I started to say what I was going to be doing with them before putting her head down on the table.
“I want you all to tell us something that people would be surprised to learn about you,” I asked them. “Something that would surprise them.” Silence.
“Come on. We ALL have things about ourselves that are interesting that people wouldn’t assume just by looking at us.”
A white woman somewhere in her 40s with a few missing teeth raises her hand.
“I play guitar and the harp.”
“I’ve been a ballet dancer since I was three and now I teach little kids,” said a beautiful and very young Latino woman.
I point at the eye-roller, a black woman in her 20s with cornrows and dark circles under her eyes. She smiles slightly and seems impressed that I’ve called her out.
“I’m an ice skater. I been ice skating since I was 4.”
A white woman with black stringy hair and bright blue eyes shouts out from the back, “I’ve skydived 7 times.”
“I’ve peed in every state in the country.”
“I’ve traveled through Europe,” this from a young white woman with track marks on her arms.
“Okay, these are all great. I want you to write about how these things make you feel. Tell me about what they do for you. You’ve got about ten minutes.”
The guitar player reads about wanting to gain her father’s love and approval by learning how to play guitar because it’s something that he does. The ballet dancer talks about how dancing makes her feel, how it frees her mind and her body. A woman who makes orthopedic shoes talks about how it helped her with her 30-yr heroin addiction. The ice skater describes the feeling of complete freedom on the ice, how it takes her mind off of everything else. The young woman who has traveled extensively giggles when recalling the innocent trouble that she and her best friend got into as 17-yr olds in Italy. The orthopedic shoe maker has begun crying and finds herself unable to speak. The women all acknowledge whatever pain she is feeling by not speaking for a moment.
The skydiver who oozes deep sadness talks about how freeing it is to take that plunge, how when you’re up there nothing else matters. She speaks a bit angrily about not feeling that air on her face while she’s in prison and acknowledges that it’s no one’s fault but her own. She explains how angry it made her every time I looked at my watch because time doesn’t MATTER in prison (She made it very clear that she wasn’t blaming me for this, but tried to explain how I can take time for granted.) She said how angry it made her that I could walk out the door and into the beautiful day that it was and feel that air, and live my day, filling up my time however I wanted, while she, yet again, had fucked up her life. She thanked me for allowing her to write about the thing she loved the most.
When time was up and the women began filing out, the young traveler said “I have to tell you that I LOVE that skirt,” which was met by nodding heads and compliments on my boots. The skydiver was the last to leave. I told her to hold on to that feeling of the air on her face, that release, and to do whatever she could to experience it again. She looked at me with such intense gratitude, but at the same time seemed utterly resigned to having to serve her term in misery and self-loathing.