When I flipped on the TV last night, I was taken back to the 12 weeks I spent at a local prison 4 and 1/2 years ago. Unlike the women on the television screen, my incarceration had been by deliberate choice, and only for a couple of hours once a week. I was in my third semester of graduate school, and had chosen to teach creative nonfiction and poetry to incarcerated women for my practicum requirement. Why I chose the women’s prison, I can’t say for sure. When the option presented itself, I simply knew I had to take it. I knew it would change my life, and, if I was lucky, the lives of a few women for at least 12 weeks.
People have asked me if I was ever afraid stepping through the locked gates and leaving my identity behind the bullet proof window of the reception desk. There was no camera mounted on the ceiling to monitor my safety, no button to push for help, yet I never felt afraid.
Driving to the prison each week, I noticed the graveyards — their gray walls with holes were difficult to miss — and began to count them. There were four. As the weeks of winter turned into spring I noted the widening patches of brown earth exposed from the melted snow, and one Saturday in early spring I was struck by the sudden appearance of color through the holes in the metal. Beside the gray headstones, the red and purple petals of flowers could be seen, their stiff green stalks stuffed into the centers of gray urns. The fake flowers made me think of the words spoken by one of my students on the first day of class, who while reading her writing exercise on “beginnings” remarked, “In here it is always Christmas,” in reference to the issued attire of the inmates. The artificial gaiety of the flowers behind the gray fences of the cemetery were symbolic to me of the irony reflected inside the prison walls.
The fences surrounding the red brick of the local women’s prison are tall and layered. Their tops curve into tangles of metal vines with thorns, keeping the inside in, the outside out. Once inside, the routine is the same for all visitors and volunteers. After you hang up your jacket, you slide your keys and license down the metal basin into the hands of the waiting guard behind the dark glass and sign the paper you receive in return. Next you must walk through the open doorway that scans your body for metal.
Each door inside the secured walls of the prison has a different metal knob, and each will not turn until someone hidden behind the dark glass recognizes and approves your presence. Some weeks I was allowed to walk the hallways alone, turning the knobs one at a time while I descended until I reached the locked door of the library where my class was held. This door was always unlocked by a key carried in the hands of an officer, who then turned and left me alone. Yet, I was never scared for my safety.
I was, I realized on my first day, in the presence of women more scared than I. Women who longed, no doubt, to switch places with me. What separated us was a mistake, or a series of them in some cases, that anyone could make. It was, for me, a constant reminder of the choices we make for freedom.
In her chapter, “Spirituality in Education,” in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, Bell Hooks writes, “It is the love that I can generate within myself, as a light and send out, beam out, that can touch people. Love can bridge the sense of otherness. It takes practice to be vigilant, to beam love out. It takes work.”
I intuitively felt this desire, this need, while I taught. The women who entered the door each week to write and learn needed to feel welcome, to look beyond their red and green shirts and build a community where love and hope were present in order to write the words held, sometimes deeply, inside of them. I did my best each week to create this environment, with their help. There were days when, after the class was finished, I left feeling elated with this effort, and a few when I drove home exhausted by my attempts to maintain a “teaching community.”
As each woman was given the opportunity to speak during the first day of class, I noticed how important it was for her to be heard. Women who had sat hunched with heads down, began to straighten their bodies and lift their gazes as they projected their voices. The transformations continued through the weeks. We become our own little community built on a mutual, unspoken platform of respect and love.
One of the inmates, “Cat,” was released before the series of classes ended. Before she re-entered the world beyond locked gates, she thanked me. “Without this class I never would have written these words. Thank you for this gift,” she told me. In this moment, and in each moment I spent in the presence of these remarkable women, I was reminded of the power of voice — that each individual holds the words of her soul, and sometimes we have the humbling privilege of holding the key to unlock the truth she has kept tightly inside.
I was in the presence of women who had suffered silence in ways I would never know. May, who had endured mental, physical and sexual abuse by her parents during childhood, then abuse by her husband, emerged into a self-confident writer who rarely showed up to class without a smile. Melody, who looked young enough to be my daughter, and never revealed more than the dark shadows of her life story, gifted us with these haunting lyrics before I left:
Beneath my feet
Blades of grass
Crisp, cool, air
Against my skin
Sun shining down
Tan color skin
Trees all around
On the ground
I was lost
I am found