Monthly Archives: July 2013

Inmates As Human Beings: When The Media Gets it Right

I just finished watching the very moving Netflix series, “Orange Is The New Black,” based on a book by a woman serving a 15-month sentence for a crime she committed at the request of her very alluring female lover.  I know from the work I do with female inmates, that the fictionally named Litchfied House of Correction is based on an actual prison in Connecticut where the majority of “my” women served time.

After doing a marathon binge-like watching of the show, I was very curious to ask the women I work with if the writers had gotten it right–if some of the joy and disturbing elements of being incarcerated were accurate.  My women don’t have access to Netflix so I asked them some questions about the amount of sex between the inmates themselves, sex with the officers, joyful birthday and holiday celebrations and the freedom to roam around the grounds without constant supervision.  They confirmed that it seems as if the writers had captured the reality.

Most of the women said that their sentences and prison time weren’t so bad, but that it’s the multitude of restrictions  in the reentry program where I see them once a week that are worse.  In my position I have to remain somewhat neutral but I listen and try to understand what they mean.

People who don’t work in this field have a hard time sympathizing with the male and female felons I work with.  I think they generally feel as if they brought this on themselves and deserve what they have coming to them.  They don’t have the opportunity to get to know the people, the humans behind the crimes.

“Orange is The New Black” does a magnificent job of humanizing the inmates in the show. The writers transcend the drab, beige prison uniforms by allowing the narrative to slip away to the back story of at least one character each episode. We see the vulnerabilities, the mistakes, the addictions and the normalcy of these women before they landed in prison.  I have been moved to tears by each one.

In my work, I see women in two settings–one group in jail and the other in the aforementioned reentry program, an actual 5-story converted brownstone.  In jail, I stand in front of a new group of women every two weeks. They are all in their uniforms, drab colored and the same.  They are faces for the first few minutes all somewhat similar to the 1,500 or so I’ve already seen before them.  They are interchangeable.   As we go through my 50-minute workshop, they become much more than faces.  They are women who became addicted to painkillers in middle-age.  They are women who have shot heroin with their parents in their teens.  They are women with Master’s Degrees and they are mothers.

In the grand parlor where I sit on couches with the released women, women on the threshold of going back to their lives, they are in their “street” clothes.  I see their unique style, some in maxi-dresses, some in cutoffs, some in business attire after coming back from work.  I see them.  I see who they were before their sentencing.

Since watching “Orange is The New Black,” I have had these quick shadow glimpses of these women in their prison uniforms –quick flashes of them moving around to visit the other inmates or sitting in the prison cafeteria telling jokes.  I see them dancing in front of boom boxes with the drawstring of their pants flopping around, showing their moves and teaching the older inmates how to line dance.  I see them in a setting that none of them ever wanted to be in making the best of the situation.  Then, like in a movie, those images evaporate and get sucked back into their current selves.

Many of them know each other from their time in prison. They laugh, they joke, they talk about this guard and that lunch lady.  They’ve seen pictures of each other’s children and met each other’s families during visiting hours.  They cheer each other on and feel happy when their time is up and they can walk out the door of the halfway house for the last time.  They become Facebook friends.

In my position I am not allowed to keep in touch with the inmates once they leave.  It is probably the hardest part of my job.  In some cases I’ve spent nine months, a day a week with these women and I know I’ll never see them again.  I’m not even allowed to hug them goodbye after they’ve opened up their hearts and fears to me.  I see them in my mind picking up their children and spinning them around in the air.  I see them dancing in their living rooms.  I see them transcending their time as prisoners and starting all over again as the individuals they are, and it makes me smile.

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“Good night—you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!”

For about a year, I have been working with a range of offenders from juveniles not yet aged-out of the system, to “hard core” felons with very long bids under their belts (“bid” = time served).

I’ve grown to love the five disparate and distinct groups I work with in very different ways.  They all make me laugh and have all made me cry.  It continues to be the best experience I have ever had.

About two weeks ago a lack of funding has resulted in the imminent closing of our juvenile residence.  According to my very rough calculation, I have had about 400 young men of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds pass through my group in less than a year.  Of those, about half came and went frequently, often gone for a couple of months to less than a week,  and then re-offended to find themselves right back where they started.  Most of the offenses are pretty minor in comparison to adult crimes–stealing cars, being out past their imposed curfews–but, they still get hauled in, often shuffled around to other programs or thrown right back into their communities.

When I heard the program was closing my thoughts went immediately to some of the AMAZING and incredibly loyal staff who will suddenly be without jobs at the end of this month.  Some of them will be folded into other existing programs but the others have a scary uncertainty looming ahead.  I’ve watched them, with tough love and compassion, make those boys relax into their very temporary home.  They lay down the law when they have to, and will sit and play cards with them during the hours of free time between dinner and lights out.  It’s during those times that I see the staff bring out the boy in those hardened young men.

These kids have dreams like everyone else.  They want to be rappers and record producers, athletes and small business owners.  They want to work with horses and become pilots.   They want the ability to apologize to their parents or grandparents or whoever they feel they’ve let down.  Others, in their own words say “I don’t give a fuck.”  But, they do.

The youngest ones, the 15 and 16-yr olds with dimples and smiles a mile wide are the most hopeful.  They haven’t yet been beaten down by those never ending loops of bad choices and circumstances and I’d like them to believe that they don’t have to be.  Others are so calloused and at this point rather indifferent towards there own lives, that you know they’ll never get out of the system that they feel has been unjust.

I don’t know why I’ve been surprised, since many peers of mine from an early age have certainly been abusers of one sort or another, but some of these kids, mostly white from upper middle class backgrounds, are, without question, alcoholics.  (Again, why the hell should this surprise me since my best friend, a quintessential WASP from Maine is a crystal meth addict.)  It’s my perspective that has changed–I’m a 48-yr old woman who is supposed to be TEACHING them something.  What in the world do I know about being a 16 year old alcoholic that they haven’t figured out for themselves?

The bottom line is that in 3 weeks I will most-likely never see any of these boys again.  I will miss the ones who are often combative and the ones who take the confidence-boosting exercises I give them and put them in their pockets to look at later.  I will miss the one who volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and came up with his own rather astounding analysis.  The thing I’ll miss the most however, is watching the woefully underpaid staff and the way they wear their hearts on their sleeves so that the boys can feel that love, love that most likely will feel elusive to them along their uncertain paths.

“Good night You Princes of Maine,
You Kings Of New England”–John Irving, The Cider House Rules