I’m thankful I’m not in jail. Really. The more I work with and interact with the women there, the less I feel a difference between us. Yes, they are confined, they are in stripes and I can tell some of us have very different life stories and backgrounds. Some might argue that they deserve to be there, that what they have done or been accused of merits being locked away. That’s an issue for another post; right now, all I see are our similarities…
I love yoga and one of the women in the class can do a back bend without support and lift her leg over her head while standing up on the other one. I love the games I bring into the class and several of the women have claimed zip, zap, boing! as their own. “This is our game,” one woman said and she is right. It is theirs as much as it is mine, as much it belonged to the woman who taught it to me. I love to laugh and joke, and I see so much intelligence and wit in that room that I’m humbled. I have had problems with depression and anxiety, as have some of the women in the class. I’ve been involved in terrible, tumultuous relationships from which I saw no escape, and several of the women wrote about this same problem in their monologues.
When I’m shopping for groceries, I look around the store sometimes and think, “Who here has been to jail? Who has been incarcerated, who has been accused?” Because you can’t tell by looking. Those who have been through the system don’t have big red letters branded into their foreheads. Does that mean we should look at the whole world through a suspicious eye, or does that mean that we should accept that those behind bars are not so different from those in the free world? That many people who have been behind bars are just that: people. And as people, many deserve compassion and help and a society that can offer them alternatives besides incarceration.
As a lucky, white middle class woman, jail and prison have not affected my life in the way that it affects so many Americans. As of 2007, 760 out of every 100,000 U.S. residents were incarcerated. That is the highest rate in the world. Russia comes close (626) but all of the countries in Western Europe are under 100 – the United Kingdom being the notable exception at 153 (World Prison Brief). Why do we love to lock people up? And why do so many of us see jail and prison as something far removed from our lives?
A new report commissioned by the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice finds that female imprisonment in the U.S. has skyrocketed 757 percent since 1977. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, surpassing male prison population growth in all 50 states. These trends have profound consequences for communities, families and the women themselves. The report finds that the rise in the female prison population has been punctuated by growth spikes that reached higher, lasted longer and often began earlier than those affecting men. The pace of growth has fallen since 2000, but the rate at which women are added to prison each year remains high. (http://www.wpaonline.org/institute/hardhit/index.htm)
So I’m thankful that, despite some dumb things I’ve done in my past and my overwhelming similarity to many of the women I teach, I am not in jail. I am thankful that I will not be condemned and judged by the outside world, that I will not face difficulty in obtaining employment or social assistance because of my criminal record. I am thankful that I have a strong support network in the free world, that I have family and friends who will be there for me if my life falls apart, who will give me help when I desperately need it. I am thankful for people like Jennifer Scott, the program coordinator at PRIDE, and for the people at the Crime Prevention Institute, who see a need and are trying to fill it. I am thankful that I am allowed into the jail to teach, that I am able to do my own small bit. I am thankful to the women in my class for welcoming me and I am thankful to all the people on the outside who are supporting me emotionally and supporting Conspire Theatre financially. (And if you’re inspired to leave a tax deductible contribution to Conspire, I’d be thankful if you’d go with that.)
When my dad mentioned what I was doing to someone he knows, the man responded, “Why is she doing that? Who cares about those people?” ‘Those people’ are not some other species crouching in the shadows. You have interacted with them, you will see them every day, you may be one of them. In a country that is so heavily incarcerated, you can be pretty damn sure that prison is staring you in the face during the course of your day, whether you realize it or not. It could be a stranger, an acquaintance, a friend, a lover, or you. It could be you.
One important thing that working in the jail is teaching me is that at some point, there is no ‘them’. There is only us. And we must work together to create a more joyful world. I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to learn that.