Their Little Psyches

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.

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