Guest Post by Tatiana McInnis
When our group of sleep-deprived, but eager and attentive graduate students first posed the question to insiders in Unit 2 at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution of what could be done to fight against or reform the US prison system there was the briefest of silences—perhaps it was a tall order; what does it mean to pose questions to men on death row about the very system that has complete and utter control over their lives? And deaths? Perhaps the insiders were chuckling internally at these bright-eyed students with curious eyes, big ideas and even bigger hopes (I have had to be frequently reminded that I have not invented the proverbial wheel of working inside prisons or advocating for their reform). Perhaps they just needed a moment.
Seconds later, a member of our reading group cleared his throat and responded slowly and steadily “nothing will happen without getting into schools and talking to kids.” In earlier discussions, this same man had expressed interest in healing those on the outside, not through a complete forgiveness, but through conversation that would allow those on the outside to know him and not the caricatures of him that we have been conditioned to fear and accept as fact. I labored under such misconceptions before beginning my tenure as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. I was under the impression that prisons are where the bad people are, the dangerous and unruly who had committed unspeakable wrongs and needed to be removed from society. In my mind, they did not speak the same language as me, they had no morality, could have no morality, for if they did, they wouldn’t have ended up there—I thought these men were justly condemned by a system that protects me and others like me from people like them. I cringe writing these words now because instead of these monsters, I found, when I entered the large, noisy room where our classes are held, that these men are indeed flawed, but they are also intelligent, eager to learn, to know, to heal, to love, and to change.
These are men who have insisted on hearing more about my awkward childhood years, my work as an instructor, my favorite books. Men who write beautiful poetry, create breathtaking artwork and ask me for tips about finishing touches; they often laugh when I tell them that my stick figures are award-winning, so they are asking the right person. Men who have talked kindly to me, given me advice about teaching, and developing patience; men who have teased me for my silence and even more for my chattiness; men who have called me “queen;” men who are very concerned with rising scholars like me speaking out about the prison-industrial complex in whatever venues we have available to us. So often, I have walked into the lobby area at Riverbend exhausted from a long day of teaching, studying, and writing, leaning on the shoulder of my colleague and complaining about how tired and hungry I am only to be invigorated by the energy, enthusiasm, and support of these men who have worked their way into my heart and made me a better person because of it. It is an honor to work with and be around these men: they remind us frequently that there are communities, people, and work to be done outside of the ivory tower . They encourage us to work with instead of work for or on behalf of these communities. They have taught me to be a better student, teacher, scholar, daughter, sister, colleague, and friend and I can’t help but wonder what changes they could bring about if they were able to reach a broader audience—or, more aptly, if a broader audience was willing to listen. I encourage you to wonder the same.
Tatiana McInnis is a PhD student in English and instructor at Vanderbilt University and anticipates receiving her degree in 2017. Her research interests include Southern, Caribbean, Immigration and Prison Studies in 20th century and contemporary American literature. She is a member of REACH Coalition and works with insiders at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Tennessee. You may contact Tatiana @ firstname.lastname@example.org.