mamculuna: (Default)
( Oct. 24th, 2005 11:36 am)
I went out to the women's prison today--I'll be teaching some meditation classes out there for the next three weeks, subbing for my friend who usually does it. It's not the first time I've worked in a prison setting--a long time ago I used to teach college English classes in the men's medium/maximum security prison. Things seemed really different today, in the women's institution, but I suspect that's only on the surface. I have a feeling that the misery is still there, but I used to feel it hit me in the face as soon as I arrived. In the men's prison, you had to enter through a long tunnel full of salley ports (go in one door and wait for it to close before the next door is opened, and they slammed behind you like the gate of doom), things were unpainted, filthy, old, ugly. Although the institution did have some courtyard space between buildings, once inside you couldn't see out, and I always felt that I was going underground for good when I got there (I used to look for the sign saying "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here..."). The men who processed my entry seemed bitter and suspicious, and there were usually inmates passing through in leg and arm chains. This women's prison by contrast is open, with big windows (they have bars, but the light and the sight of the sky gets in)in most rooms--you go right in, passing just a fence, and once inside, it's clean, shiny, polished. Most of the correctional officers (we used to call them guards), administrators, etc., are women, and their greetings are warmer, more open. The inmates I saw were on work details, carrying buckets and mops. It feels better.

But Wednesday, when I meet the inmates in my group, I suspect I'll find some familiar feelings.

Dealing with inmates is very strange. Survival behind bars depends on getting along with people who have power over you, and the students I used to teach had chosen the route of education and that meant a high level of custody, which in turn meant getting along with the prison administration. So they were charming people in many ways--the hard part is that you know you can't trust that the surface is the reality, because manipulation is survival there. Yet some would say and write the most heart-rending things about their loneliness and depression and grief. (The chaplain today suggested that a lot of the women now are taking meds for this). I never wanted to know what they had done, and knew that what they told me anyway probably wasn't true (I used to say that only two people in the whole system had actually done their crime and those two had found Jesus--at least that's how they represent themselves).

But more than once I encountered a person who'd done--and acknowledged--a horrific crime, and yet I could see in his writing, what he said in class, his actions, that he had a lot of compassion for other inmates, and a depth of reflection and introspection about things that amazed me. I began to catch on, duh, that people are complex--that even a murderer can be gentle and kind, spending a lot of his life teaching illiterate people to read. We always know that people who seem to be saints may actually have their dark sides--harder to realize that monsters can still develop goodness and love.

At the same time you know that all you know of them could be a game, you have to remember that all you know of them could be true.
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