Guest post by Victoria Bryan
“They’re so concerned about their little psyches that you’d think they’d be handing out make-up for free in there.”
These words have played over and over in my head. They were spat at me after telling someone very close to me (whom I love and respect a great deal and find to be a very kind person) about a conundrum I’ve noticed while teaching English in prison. My realization was that I am not asked to take off my make-up when I enter a men’s prison to teach, but that a friend of mine who teaches at a women’s prison in New Jersey has been handed a make-up removal cloth every time she walks through the door.
“Why?” this person asked me.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just one of the weird inconsistencies in the prison system. Maybe it’s another way to control the women who are incarcerated—I’m just not sure.”
“That seems so backwards. The men are the ones who are going to sexualize their teachers.”
I sidestepped this opportunity to point out that women can be attracted to women and that men aren’t the only people who possess a sense of sexuality, and instead explained, “The general rule I’ve picked up on is that conformity is key for the people who run these prisons. Take away individuality and people are easier to control.”
“But they’re so concerned about their little psyches that you’d think they’d be handing out make-up for free in there.”
There it was. This person hadn’t called incarcerated women stupid or selfish or inbred or any number of other demeaning and degrading insults I’ve heard hurled at the shocking numbers of female prisoners in our nation. She just spoke from her own perception, albeit with an unmistakeable air of disgust.
I think it was the disgust that upset me more than the misperception, but I’ve examined and re-examined both since this encounter. This educated, kind, loving person had expressed a common misperception of our incarceration system—one built on the assumption that any attempt to offer opportunities to incarcerated individuals is a free-ride not afforded to the good, law-abiding citizens on the outside. Built on the reductive mistruth that those who are incarcerated are the bad guys and those who aren’t have never broken a law and must be protected from the Others.
Having spent a year interacting with incarcerated men, I’d forgotten that this perception existed, and it hit me hard when it was spat at me as if I’d just agree—as if it were somehow an indisputable fact.
The disgust, though, upset me terribly. This person who has performed countless good deeds, who has offered support to those who have needed it, who has loved those in her life with such ferocity—this person was disgusted with the thought that “they” were too concerned with “their little psyches.” I don’t know who she assumed “they” were. Perhaps she believes that the prison system isn’t being hard enough on these women. Perhaps she was referencing outside groups like the one with which I work. Regardless, the concern for their psyches was too much for her taste.
Our conversation petered out after that comment, and I realized that I had missed an important opportunity.
I should have told her that she was wrong. I should have pointed out that nearly six in ten women who go to prison have been abused physically or sexually, and nearly seventy percent of those women experienced their abuse before turning eighteen. That these women may have committed violent crimes, may have belonged to gangs, may have hurt others, may have hurt themselves, may have acted recklessly, but that people rarely make these mistakes because they have the entire world at their fingertips. I should have pointed out that the reason she and I aren’t in prison has a lot to do with things that were lined up for us before we were born. I should have told her that she was being reductive and hurtful and negligent and that this kind of disregard for the complexity of the incarceration system and inattention to the simultaneous subtlety and egregiousness of our age of mass incarceration was not only irresponsible but dangerous.
At the very least I should have told her that I disagreed.
But I didn’t. I stood and stared, and the tension in the room grew thick. She walked away talking about something mildly related, and I wondered why something that seemed so small on the surface had upset me so badly. After turning the encounter over in my head and reflecting on all of my missed opportunities, I realized that the frustration I felt came from the fact that so many people think this way, and I had lost sight of that. I had gotten so tied up in my work over the past year that I unknowingly began to assume that as my attention to mass incarceration had grown, so had everyone else’s. All of those articles I saw online, all of those conversations I had with other teachers of incarcerated learners, all of those books I’d read and facts I’d tracked down did point to a growing awareness, but they didn’t mean that the work of raising awareness had been completed.
When loving and kind people can absent-mindedly make such harmfully reductive comments, we have a long and subtle path to trudge. The demonization of those labeled “criminals” makes Othering easy. The perception is that their lot in life is something over which they had complete control. They did something wrong, so they deserve to be taken away from society and “corrected.” The problem with this mindset is that it ignores the fact that disproportionately high numbers of people of color and people from low-income backgrounds are currently locked away in U.S. prisons. Similarly, it ignores the fact that this country imprisons people at a higher rate than any other country on Earth despite the fact that we don’t have higher numbers of violent crimes accompanying those rates of incarceration.
The subtleties of the conversation about imprisonment are hard to sort out. We know going into these conversation that few of our friends, family members, or co-workers will walking away thinking, “I’m glad we had that conversation because I have a new outlook on incarcerated individuals now.” It’s much more likely that they will walk away angry or frustrated or even worried.
But maybe they read the next article that they see online about Tennessee’s criminalization of addicted mothers-to-be or botched executions and think, “There are layers to this” instead of thinking, “They deserve it.” Maybe they hear that the prison where Orange is the New Black is shot is so overrun with sewage problems and infestation issues that the cast isn’t allowed to drink the water pumped into the facility, and think, “That is dehumanizing” instead of thinking, “I bet they’re going to be worried about their little psyches now.”
The encounter is just one instance where I’ve failed to take the opportunity to have these conversations, but I’ve learned since then that progress is slow and small victories are worth more than we tend to think because out of discomfort comes growth. As with any other civil rights issue, change will continue to take place slowly, but it necessitates taking the uncomfortable opportunities to say “I disagree with you. May I tell you why?”
Victoria M. Bryan is a 5th year doctoral candidate and the University of Mississippi’s 2014-2015 McCool Fellow. She has worked with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative for one year, teaching English at Charles Bass Correctional Complex in Nashville, TN. Her work in the field of critical prison study has been presented at the Rethinking Mass Incarceration in the South and the American Literature Association conference, and is under review with the journal of College Composition and Communication.