Today, I was ready. I felt like I dropped the ball last week, so I put on a cute t-shirt, put my hair up in funny buns and planned a high energy, game-full and Forum Theatre heavy class today. We would come together in fun, energy and problem solving! There ain’t nothin’ me, a boombox and a hand picked selection of theatre games can’t accomplish!
Guess where this is going? If you’re thinking, “Up against a brick wall,” you wouldn’t be far off.
Today, I was ready. I arrived at the jail a few minutes early, bouned up to the visitation desk and waited. And waited. Not too unusual, but I didn’t know the women at the desk today, so it took a little longer for them to figure me out and give me my badge. They chatted, they helped other people in line, they chatted some more. Customer service ain’t their job so if I’m getting antsy, that’s my problem. I hustle through, make my way to the education building. I don’t see the women as I’m walking in, don’t see the women as I get out of the elevator, don’t hear them coming up the stairs so I run to the bathroom and to refill my water bottle. When I come back out, the officer (not the one I know) looks at me like I’m an alien.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“Katherine Craft. I teach for PRIDE.” My watch sys 9:05. The clock on the wall reads 9:10. The clocks in the classrooms, I know from experience, will have different times on them. Time is fluid and philosophical here, but no one else notices this.
“The women have gone back.”
“They’re gone. I sent them back. I didn’t know what was going on and no one told me you’d be late so I sent them back.”
“What?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“They were here at five til.”
“It’s only 9:05. Your clock is fast.” His look told me that it didn’t matter what my watch said or what I thought, the women were gone and that’s all there was to it. “There’s no way to bring them back?” He shook his head. “Okay. Bye.”
I tramped back down to visitation, retrieved my license and embarked on my two hour bus journey home. I was only five minutes late, I whispered to myself indignantly. Only about two or three, really, because I went to the bathroom before I talked to the officer and they had already been sent back at that point. And they’re usually ten minutes late themselves! Meg and I have hung out in an empty classroom for fifteen minutes waiting on them because the officer doesn’t bring them on time!
Whenever I start to get comfortable, something happens to remind me that I am working in a jail. Not an early learning center or an afterschool program, not in a school or at a theatre camp. This is jail – a system set up to corral, punish and control people. A system that may be worked by caring individuals or by people who have vastly different priorities than mine. A system that is too large and complex to find a stable place in. A system that makes its own rules and then changes them. A system who can define time however it pleases, thank you very much.
I know, I know – poor me, right? How frustrating! The white woman of privilege has to navigate a system that millions of Americans count on as part of their daily life. But I’m more concerned with how the women in my class must feel. They might think that I just didn’t show up today, that for some reason I couldn’t be bothered to make it in for them. They have no idea what happened because no one will tell them. They went back to their unit, probably pissed off because they’d hauled themselves out of bed for my class, gone through whatever crap they have to go through to get to the education building and then I’m not there!
This kind of frustration and rigamarole, somehow this is supposed to rehabilitate people or fix crime or something. What exactly is the purpose of a jail? Or a prison? Today, I feel like their point is to give people jobs – jobs at desks, jobs in squad cars and jobs in construction. Jobs in a system that doesn’t even need to make claims about efficacy or humanity or purpose because the American people like to punish and lock up anything that moves. People deserve what they get, right? We like that narrative because it keeps us from doubting the systems that run our lives. Systems that we can ignore until they personally affect us and hey, most of us aren’t really that affected by this stuff, are we? Until someone from that system shoots our dog or locks up our daughter or runs over our 17 year old son in his squad car, and even then the trolls on the internet will tell us we deserve it anyway.
In the scope of my life, one missed Friday class doesn’t seem like a such big deal but in the scope of the women’s incarcerated lives, it’s one more example of how the system does not serve them. I want to make clear that I respect those who are in education and social work in the jail because I know they do care about the people they serve and want to find better ways to help them. At this point, though, I’m with Angela Davis – let’s get rid of this system. Let’s find another way.
Until we do, I’ll show up twenty minutes early instead of ten and try to remember that even when the ground feels stable, it’s shifting under my feet.