Walking into my weekly prison workshop I never know what might potentially trigger certain reactions in the inmates or what will lead to off-course conversations (always the best ones.) From my almost 2-years of doing this, I know going in that in the course of 45-minutes, I will walk away with at least one moment that will impact me greatly–something that will stay with me for days, months and others undoubtedly for the rest of my life.
(For example, a few weeks ago a woman shared that her mother shot her up for the FIRST time when she was ten. How the FUCK does one respond to this??? It was a large group that day and we were all stunned into total silence. I have a 10-year-old daughter. I was sick to my stomach and I literally have to shake myself out of the thought when it comes to me. And yes, this woman, a very bitter one I might add, is an addict.)
In my last class we talked about labels–how we label ourselves and how others label us. I’ve done this many times before and my ultimate goal is to have the women focus on their strengths and not the negative labels we put on ourselves or that others project onto us. I go around the class and ask whoever is willing to share these negative labels, the ones affixed by others. There are many common ones, “junkie,” “bad mother,” “bitch,” “whore,” but in this past class, one woman said “I’m a batterer. I’m here for beating up my husband.”
“Wow. I’ve never met a woman who beats up her husband before,” a young woman said. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing.
When you are sentenced for a crime with such clearly defined labels–felon, murderer, drug smuggler, pedophile–it makes it easy for our criminal justice system to define people, to put them in these little file folders and slide the drawer shut. The women I work with are not there for such heinous crimes and I don’t think run the risk of devolving into the categories above. Many of them however, are repeat offenders, finding themselves back at the beginning like a game piece.
I asked the woman how she thought others saw her on the “outside,” on the other side of the bars. At that she began to sob, deep and gut-wrenching sobs. The woman sitting next to her reached out and rubbed her back and the most I was allowed to do was get her some tissues. We all gave her the space to cry, to release just a pittance of the pain she was feeling.
“You just hit the nail right on the head,” she said. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was in particular that had touched her so deeply and I asked.
“I have a friend who always tells me I’m the kind of person who can dine with the Kennedys or drink with the drunks. I’m everything to everybody. When I have my makeup and nice clothes on, I am that person, and that’s how people see me. But when I look like this, people judge me as a bum, an addict, a bitch.”
I asked her what her dream was, who she wanted to say she was.
“I want to own my own restaurant.”
“Okay, so, why don’t you figure out the path where you go from ‘I’m a batterer’ to ‘I’m an ex-batterer,’ to ‘I’m a restaurant owner.'”
She considered the way that sounded and smiled. I shared my own recent label-change, and how great it feels to actually become who you dream of becoming even if just the saying it makes it feel closer to eventually becoming real. I think I’ve realized, at this advancing age, that we really do have the power to redirect our paths, even if there are many labels to be modified along the way. Maybe I helped to nudge that woman along her way, or maybe she will forever see herself as a batterer, but I know it made her feel something good, even for just a minute or two, that she might just hold onto.