I didn't know what to expect. It took some effort to be able to become a volunteer, and I was refused the Kentucky grant I had applied for. The first step was to get cleared by security. The last time I had a security check I was refused entrance to the White House – in spite of having an appointment with the Correspondence Secretary for Cheney- so I was a bit apprehensive.
Once I passed security I was enrolled in a mandatory training program for anyone teaching at the prison.
The officer who ran the program warned us against displaying emotion, and the threat of being manipulated by the female inmates who could under no circumstances be trusted. For example, he said, if they compliment you on your earrings, it is dangerous to say thank you. Instead we were instructed to say something like "I am here to talk about the class, not fashion."
Upon hearing this report, my husband, Steven, who knows my teaching style and my earrings, commented: "If you get through this without being thrown into the prison, it will be a miracle."
The trainer told us that 85% of the men who work at the Women's Prison get sexually involved with the women. He also told us that about 85% of the women at the prison have a “girlfriend”. It is unclear what the latter means, as the women are not allowed to touch each other in any way- not comb each other’s hair or tie each other’s shoes. For any of these offenses they can be accused of having a girlfriend, and punished. Later, in class, when they got excited about something they were doing and went to “high five” each other- they stopped a centimeter short of each other’s hands. Most of them had been deprived of touch for over three years.
When I asked about the incidence of rape or murder in the Women’s prison, the trainer said it was rare. Still, the men make the rules for the women’s prison, and I was told they are the same rules as for the men’s prison. When I asked about how to dress I was advised not to wear khaki, as that is the color of their uniforms- and eyeing my scarf he said: “And no scarves in case someone tries to strangle you.”
Forty-eight hours ahead of class each week I sent in a precise list of supplies by email for "gate check". I was not allowed to bring in ink or metal- not even blunt bookbinding needles. Anything metal can be fashioned into a weapon or a tool. I did bring my basket of colored pencils- and even though I was not permitted to give my students gifts, I encouraged them to take whatever colors they wanted- as pencils were one of the few possessions they were allowed to have. I marveled at having a class of students where everything had been taken: family, home, phone, internet, computer, clothing, privacy- they all slept in one room. They cherished each colored pencil and piece of paper. Each bead and length of thread. The charms I brought from New Mexico for their books they loved but in the end were not allowed to keep.
In some ways, their lack of electronic devices was a benefit. Their focus was free of any messages in the airwaves vying for attention- the atmosphere in the classroom was thick with observation, investigation and contemplation. And stories and singing.
At 7:30 each week I arrived at the large well lit concrete parking lot with my bag of supplies that had been cleared for gate check. An officer walked me through the locked doors and passages to the classroom. He pointed out the “lock down” building surrounded by barbed wire where inmates who had broken a rule were put in solitary confinement. There were a few different colors of uniforms on the women walking along these paths- the yellow meant you were pregnant, the blue, a medical assistant or nurse. On the walkway to the classroom there were beautiful flower gardens made by the inmates and the gardening teacher. I grew accustomed to seeing my students standing in line outside the building dressed in their pressed khaki pants and shirts. I remember Beatrice’s blonde hair neatly tied into a pony tail, her perfect make-up on her young face, and her small hands holding the Book of Days we were making. They had assignments each week and took them seriously. Beatrice stood next to Angeline, who was quiet and attentive, and kept her dark head bent down. She held a few colored pencils in her fist.
The women in my class were all in Psychological Services, and so had any number of issues I could relate to in these circumstances: anxiety, depression, even schizophrenia. The psychologist in charge was accessible and sincere. I was glad to discover that she and the education director care about these inmates. But even the psychologist said prison is an unsafe environment for expressing your feelings, even to your therapist, as the slightest dissatisfaction can be interpreted as a danger to oneself or others- and then one is "thrown in the hole". All my students knew about this experience of being thrown in the hole. When I asked Kerry about it, she said flatly: you don't want to know- or ever go there. She had been thrown in for trying to escape over the wall after hearing about the death of her teenage son.
So my first concern in the class I taught was to give them freedom of expression without the danger of being detected. How can I teach them to write openly without fear of being punished? How do you give inmates permission for such a human need in a place where behavior is so scrutinized and restricted? I used writing techniques I also use "out in the world": writing with a white China marker on white paper- so not only your neighbor can't see what you are writing, but you can't either! Permission is such a simple act, and so elusive. We also developed handwriting techniques where each line overlaps, and painting techniques that obscured and made illegible anything that was secret. All of this became material for the books and weathergrams we made. I wanted each student to have the experience of being proud of something they made- an avenue to self-esteem that at moments, lit up their faces. And to have something they could take with them.
Just like the "outside", I began class with movement, meditation, and then a story or a poem. In the first class they were very quiet- but soon, at each class, their urgent request was: "Will you tell us another story?" I told them I would tell them stories of women in trouble. They heard about Psyche's Impossible Tasks, the Handless Maiden, Persephone and the Underworld, and other archetypal stories of darkness and loss. I recited the Hottentot story about Star Woman I heard from Laurens van der Post, and told them about some of my storytelling heroes: Joseph Campbell, Nancy Willard and Michael Meade. How is it that loss is right next to the door where we can become more fully who we are, and understand what we are here to do? From this perspective, death is not something that just comes once, at the end of life. Death shows up in every loss or ending, departure or grief- and these important turns in the road offer us only two choices: to become more expansive or narrower as human beings. The stories and poetry give us a map.
When Ceci arrived one morning she could hardly hold up her head- she had just come from med-line where she received her day's medication. Lenora had let me know she would be a few minutes late. They watched out for each other and had such kindness. I didn't ask them what they were in for, or what they were on. I just wanted to meet them as new people unfettered by history. Occasionally, during class, a student would tell part of her story. Back surgery, oxycontin, addiction, stealing. Loss of a child, alcohol, rape, accidents, self-defense. They loved the music I played: Dolly Parton singing "Knocking On Heaven's Door" was a favorite: it's getting dark, too dark to see..." Kayla, who tested out at fourth grade level, was the quickest in understanding the bookbinding instructions. Eve, who was a college graduate, was a kind of spokeswoman for the group: she knew when each student was getting out or going up for parole.
All my students had felonies, and they were all due to get out within a short time after our last class. Some had made decisions to go to a halfway house, others to a family member. I was relieved when Beatrice decided not to go home to her husband after all. In prison, where inmates are unpredictably moved from one facility to another, it was an unusual opportunity to have the continuity of the same students for the eight week period. I found myself worrying about how they would manage on the outside.
At the last class they surprised me with a book they had made for me. On the cover there was a detailed colored pencil drawing of Star Woman descending from the heavens on a golden thread. “Ms. Laurie, Becca said, “we have something for you.” She placed the small book in my hands. They had each written personal notes ending in “Namaste”- a word they learned from our opening movement exercises: the spirit in me bows to the spirit in you. In spite of the warnings against displaying emotion, their simple words and heartfelt gratitude, bravery and respect, rendered me speechless.
I never did experience being manipulated by them- I only felt their hunger for art, thirst for contact, and devotion to stories.