Friday, August 22, 2008

A Graduation Behind Bars

I went out to Correctional Facility a few weeks ago for their graduation as an assignment with my college paper. I'm editing and I have no reporters yet, I wanted a story so I went. Several years ago I cared for a woman's pets while she was incarcerated there and I hyperventilated when I was greeted by a shadow person behind a smoke glass screen. His voice was electronically distorted and out of the kindness of his mostly cynical heart he came out and got me outside and comforted me while I ranted at how inhuman he had seemed, then burst into tears some more when I looked up and saw a woman pushing her child on a swing behind barbed wire. (Darrin said that it hadn't helped that I'd been obsessive over Solzhenitsyn and Orwell during the previous six months.) The guard knew that the woman I was seeing "needed" to see me for her own sake so he assured me that I'd not be entrapped if the electricity went out and how it would work if the back-up generators didn't work so I could still leave. The guard was not bad, and he seemed genuinely concerned for me. Darrin thinks that I was so obviously out of my element and that he probably just wanted the best possible outcome for both of our sakes.

When I took the kids camping, we drove down that road and past the facility and I got constriction in my throat. Almost ten years had passed yet my body reacted! I never forgot how scary it was and over the years, I had nightmares about it. In college, it was easy for the human services majors to make terrible jokes about prisons and I would stand up for them and remind them what they were doing to a disenfranchised population and just making it worse. I'd pray over it, because I'd sometimes wake up thinking about it, not, "Oh those poor people!" but, "Why am I waking up thinking of this?" Can't I be woken up to think about fashion or great story ideas that will make me rich and a generous philanthropist?

The greatest battles that we fight are never seen. Going that day was one of those for me. I knew what to expect but I was still worried about hyperventilating and my husband couldn't take time out of work to drive me there. I went in and laughed right of the bat because the correctional officer (they get upset if you call them guards) said on her speaker phone, "T.N Crumpet from the SmallTown College Gazette-- whatever that is." (I really need to make our little paper better known!)

My lawyer friend had warned me about inmates who'd committed severely terrible crimes being able to pull the wool over people's eyes by being extremely friendly. I met some offenders who we've read about in the paper who are really not very nice people. They were sweet and very funny in person. I understood what my beloved friend was talking about. I met some truly amazing people who went to speak, who are huge in education. Their orchestra played a beautiful rendition of Pomp and Circumstance. A former prison chaplain and I spoke at length and she asked me to consider joining a prison ministry because she'd not been able to get an Orthodox Christian to be a part of it and there were several inmates who needed us. She burst out laughing when I exclaimed, "What? You have Russian Orthodox? In here?"

"Hmmm, a little self righteous, are we?"

I told her that it wasn't that-- it was just that the people who I know obsess and flagellate about sinning over minor thoughts, not committing actual crimes! (I think that a substantial portion are also on antidepressants, but that is only my opinion.) Well, it's not always like that, she explained. I need to actually go to church regularly so that I can bring my faith with me and know more, but it seems like something I may like. I'm considering it. She knew my favorite Presbyterian minister. It was great to talk to her.

I also spoke to the man who runs the institution, a Mr. M. He looked at me oddly but not in a gross way, like he was looking through me or at other things about me. I wonder what he has been trained to look at on people that normal people don't see. He seemed pleasant, and not as stressed at high school principals that I know. His interaction with the inmates was friendly-- one inmate wanted to show me a dog that she is training and he said, "What are you doin' bringing that dog around her? Will you show her how he eats voles then wants to lick everyone?" She told him, "He has learned a new trick!" (That dog was smart!) He and a correctional officer told me that they are role models to the inmates and explained how that facility is NOT typical in that it is much more laid back and friendly because they have this radical view that people are more likely to mend their ways if they are under less stress. They are removed from society to protect society, and they are punished for what they are convicted of, but they also have mandatory classes and training and are encouraged to change. The correctional officers are pretty-- they wear make-up and are friendly. Of course one told me that it was a graduation day and it was special, nicer than normal, but it was always hell because inmates couldn't leave. They are regulated and are told when to go to bed, what chores they can do, and some thrive, but a certain percentage will get out and recommit and be right back. I met one inmate who said that she'd been in and out for years. I never asked what she did, but she is looking forward to a release this week and just getting a job to make ends meet, but she'll be free and along with that comes the good and the bad. What makes me happy to see is that the incarcerated will leave having been removed from Society, but will go back having not been processed by an uncaring system.

I found out that there are places that inmates can access for education money, but I may not write about them. We live in a society that feels a sense of entitlement and there are a lot of people who might say, "Well, I had to pay for my education and he broke the constitution! Why does he get free money for school?" I met some wonderful teachers who are very dedicated to their work there and truly love waking up and going to work.

My first draft had my paper manager shaking his head at me. (I get that a lot no matter what I do!) He said that I made it look like a Vaccation Destination and that I will have readers committing petty crimes with the hope of getting sent there. I need to wait another week or two and fix it up.

Am I being told what I want to hear? I really wanted to like the place and be assured that people could be rehabilitated there. I don't think that people coming out would be angry at the society that put them there, given how they seemed treated.

1 comment:

Naomi Joy said...

you lead one interesting life!