Graduation Day

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a long post, but Graduation for my students is a complex, rich experience and deserves significant reflection.

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I find that I am often befuddled when people remark, with surprise, on the poise, clarity, and eloquence of my students. I am befuddled until I remember that they don’t see them as I do. They may have only seen them, for years, in their darkest places of mind and body. They likely have never seen them at their best as mature adult women. And that’s what I see from the beginning – I see not only the possibility, but the reality. I see it and I hold it for them, until they can see it and hold it for themselves. Graduation is an opportunity for their friends and family to see that person, to see the person I see.

The three months leading up to the big day are often the most stressful for me. We’re not only trying to finish all the coursework, I have to oversee the planning and creation of whatever decorations they want, handle all the security/event details, and begin the process of recruiting a new class.  All those things combine into a slow-cooking stew of tedious detail, frustration, an ongoing effort to maintain patience and find ways to keep myself healthy and sane.

By far, the biggest source of stress is the students.  By the time we’re planning graduation, they’ve been in the program for about 12 months.  They’re tired, ready to be done, and starting to hit the “ending is in sight and holy shit, what next?!” phase.  There’s a real risk of self-sabotage for some – I lost one this year just six weeks before she would have finished.  There is a lot of fear of transition and change – of endings, a new routine, different supervisors and co-workers.  They’ve built a strong, safe community in this room and there are no guarantees about what they’ll face elsewhere.

I am able to help a few get other positions, program graduates are usually in high demand.  They’ve proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and they have good, solid transferable skills.  Some stay with me as clerks (three or four usually), some are going to treatment or are releasing in the next few months, so they take whatever jobs they can get.  But even with all their learning, support, and new skills, they are aflutter with nerves, and with good reason.

For most of them, this is their first significant accomplishment.  Ever.

You read that right – most of them have never completed anything important, or even truly given anything a focused, concentrated effort.  Some have – there are a few high school completers (they all have at least a GED), fewer still who have some college success.  Most have held crap jobs off and on, but few have held legitimate jobs outside of fast food, waitressing, or low-level service work.  The majority of them have survived however they could – all types of illegitimate goods and services, prostitution, theft/burglary/robbery, gambling – you name it, they’ve done it.

Completing this program, for them, is a statement to themselves and their families that they are doing everything they can to leave that world behind.  This may be the best they’re going to be for a while, and they have every right to be proud, accomplished, nervous, and afraid.  None of us ever knows when we are going to fall short of our expectations of ourselves.  We are rarely prepared to fail – especially on a grand scale, and we spend far more time punishing ourselves for our failures than anyone else ever would.

But for women (and men) who have been incarcerated, the fear of failure exists at a whole new level.  Until this moment, their lives are a testament to failure, and society incessantly reminds them of those failures. They have failed as daughters, women, wives, sisters, mothers, employees, citizens, lovers, and humans.  They have wreaked havoc on themselves and those they love, extending that damage far and wide to innocent bystanders, property, businesses, and the community. Incarceration is the ultimate symbol of failure, one that seems impossible to ever shed.

Because they have done so much damage to their relationships, success in prison often comes with a price.  Families, full of rage and pain, demand that they live in a state of constant self-punishment.  “Why are you smiling in that picture?! Are you happy to be in prison?” they ask.  Or “Why should we come to graduation? You want us to be proud that the only place you can finish something is in prison?” Or “We won’t bring your children, they don’t deserve to see you locked up” and innumerable other thoughtlessly cruel statements.

I don’t hold judgment on these families.  While they all have their own broken dynamics, it is impossible to deny these women have done great harm.  While the family itself may have put the girlchild’s feet on the wrong path, the choices were ultimately her own, even if they all pay the price.  It’s not my place to say that a family shouldn’t be angry, ashamed, disappointed, broken-hearted, they have a right to feel however they feel. But the weight of all that pain and anger is a heavy burden for my students to bear, and adds to their already extraordinary levels of anxiety, heightening their fear of failing yet again.

I had a student collapse in my office sobbing, in part because she was ashamed at the pride she felt in herself for completing the program.  She cried and cried while she tried to reconcile her feelings and her desire for her family to celebrate her success.  How much worse to fail again after such a glowing, exciting success? How much worse to let yourself and your family down again, after making such a concerted effort to create a different life?

The risk they take in claiming success, in attempting to trust themselves again, is enormous, as is the amount of courage necessary to take such a risk.

In this program, inside these walls, they are at the top of the heap.  They are in a position of privilege, they have credibility, they have the trust of staff and security, they trust themselves, they can see and measure their success and accomplishments, and their confidence grows.  But once they leave, they go right back to the bottom, and that plummeting drop is enough to drain the courage out of anyone.

They are now faced with freedom of choice and action, they have to pick up the burdens of daily living, supporting themselves and their children, finding healthcare and childcare, and often dealing with aging or sick relatives.  They are expected to make amends for their past sins, make endless reparations, and successfully navigate the roadblocks and obstacles society puts in place for those with a criminal background.

Their successes inside the walls become meaningless to everyone but them.

And that’s the ultimate fear:  that it wasn’t real, that they haven’t truly changed, that they won’t be able to hold onto this new self.  It’s hard enough to carry a strong sense of self-worth and pride, even harder with the weighty legal and personal burden of past mistakes. What if they can’t do it?  What if they can’t maintain their sense of self-worth and dignity?  What if all they are is what they’ve always heard?  What if the new person they’ve struggled so hard to become is just a mirage, with no lasting substance?

None of these questions have answers because the answers are different for every student, for every human being. These questions aren’t even specific to them, although they take on particular weight for this population.  These are questions we ask ourselves, all the time, or should be asking.  “Am I good person? Am I a person I can be proud of?  Am I making the best decision for myself and others?”

That they now not only ask, but care deeply about the answer is one sign of fundamental, personal change.  If they can keep asking the question and caring about the answer, that’s as good as most of the rest of us, and better than some. That’s the weight of graduation day for us – a symbol of accomplishment that simultaneously carries enormous risk and hope.  It is worth the work, though, for them to experience themselves as successful, proud, confident, intelligent, and valuable, for as long as possible, and to share that new self with their families.

It is a new path forward for all of them, a chance to walk forward together, in a different direction.

When things get worse

Corrections, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

This is a long post.  It is a recap of a situation that arose with a student and its unexpected resolution.  It is long because some of the nuances are unusual and specific to corrections. In order to convey the importance of the more seemingly mundane details, I have offered more explanation than I normally would.

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One of the worst things about working in a prison is that I see the direct, immediate impact of systemic limitations on real, living people all the time.  I had a student (I’ll call her Martha) who, like most of them, had a terrible history of abuse and trauma. But Martha’s was worse, I think, because it involved child abuse from a family member, multiple court appearances and testifying, all concluding only a short time before her incarceration.  She had another family member pass from a drug overdose around the time she started my class, no mother or father, and two other siblings still using.

When Martha started my class, she had no history of counseling for any of these issues, no treatment or programming, no cognitive or emotional management training, nothing.  She was somehow getting through her days, although I couldn’t say how.  Martha had incredibly high levels of anxiety around academics and testing, as most of my students do, and it took her a while to settle.  About the time she started to relax, I realized she would be eligible for treatment and grew concerned.

Treatment is hard inside the razor wire.  It’s hard outside, but it’s a different type of hard in here.  There is no safety, no privacy, the “peer leadership” model means that the sick are tasked with trying to lead the sick, and there is no option to escape or leave that doesn’t come with significant consequences. There is little therapeutic support, which is highly problematic for people who have such desperate need for therapy.

Add to those fundamental problems that most of these women have suffered trauma and abuse, and that predators and prey are expected to physically co-exist and support each other, and we have a recipe for a toxic, potentially dangerous environment.  The cherry on the sundae is that the women are all expected to behave as if this is a safe, supportive community where they’re all working to help each other, even though the opposite is more often true.  The women compete, sabotage, act out their extensive range of dysfunctional coping mechanisms, and prey on each other mercilessly. That some women are able to learn from the experience and deal with some of their thinking and behavior is miraculous.

Knowing this and knowing a bit of Martha’s history, I contacted two colleagues and expressed my concern.  It was during that conversation that I learned that our therapists are tasked (almost exclusively) with crisis management (using DBT), and almost, but not quite, forbidden from engaging in clinical therapeutic practice.  It may be different in the Medium, but that’s what happens in the Minimum.  The end result of the conversation was that there was little we could do except know that putting Martha in treatment could backfire and that it would be risky for her.  She still wanted to try, so we accepted her decision.

I need to clarify that I believe that this lack of clinical therapeutic practice is a simple function of resources, i.e. money.  Even on the Medium side, they have limited spots in the more intensive mental health treatment programs, and those spots are saved for those with the worst of the worst mental health issues – regardless of whether the treatment could help them be okay outside prison or not.  Taxpayers simply don’t want to fork over more money to deal with people who are incarcerated.  Or maybe the money is there and legislators don’t want to give it to DOC for the same reasons.

Corrections is a giant sinkhole for cash, in part because the population has giant, overwhelming, seemingly endless needs.  DOC is tasked with using not enough money to deal with a bottomless well of need, and clinical therapy is one of the areas that never has enough of anything.  It’s possible there are regulatory or legislative mandates preventing more intensive therapeutic practice, but I don’t know.  In any case, the upshot was that Martha would receive no additional counseling if her past trauma started coming up in treatment – she’d have to figure out how to get through it with peer support and what little staff support we could provide.

Her treatment experience had a rough start.  Her start date wasn’t clarified so we had to juggle for a few weeks so she could continue in my class and, as we found out later, she was shifted from one counselor’s caseload to another.  She and I spoke several times because I could see that she was having a hard time, but she was sort of managing, and there was nothing else I could do.  It’s a delicate issue to even appear to question treatment staff, especially based on the word of an inmate.

Even if I’m trying to clarify something I was told, it can be easily misinterpreted as a critique of staff, allowing an inmate to triangulate staff against each other, or believing an inmate over staff.  Whether real or imagined, those are all serious breaches of etiquette and, if true, can be a problem for any staff person found “guilty.”  So I do the same thing that the counselors do – help students manage crisis and look for ways to navigate a fraught, toxic, confusing, and often frightening environment.

I’m also not a mental health professional and, even though I know them fairly well, I only know them through one aspect of their daily lives.  One of the hardest things about my job is realizing that what they show me – no matter how positive – is only one face and maybe not their primary face.  I try to believe that the people running the treatment programs do have a plan and know what’s best, but it’s rarely easy. I spend so much time with my students, and I have to actively work to stop myself from believing that I know what’s best because I’m the expert on them.

In Martha’s case, it all came to a head over the course of a few days.

On a Monday, Martha decided she wanted to sign out of treatment.  That has a variety of consequences, all of them punitive, regardless of whether the decision is best for her or whether her reasons are valid.  Unless she’s so bad she can rate an administrative removal (i.e. she needs to be put in the mental heath unit in Medium), she’ll lose good time, lose any privileges, won’t be able to get a decent job for months, and have to go back to living in General Population and try to deal with her stress there.  It’s a shitty, shitty system and doesn’t support (at all) people who have valid reasons for not being able to stay healthy in that treatment environment.

Martha couldn’t be in that environment and maintain her stability.  When I was asked to speak with her that Monday night, she was still able to hold herself together, and we came up with a plan to help her get through until Friday.  She agreed she could wait until then to sign out, and that it would be good for her to have more time to make sure she was making the best decision.  She did admit to suicidal thoughts, and that she had a history of physical aggression, but felt confident she didn’t want to act on them.

Tuesday brought a series of update emails, and me asking why she wasn’t being considered for an administrative removal.  The answer I got wasn’t very satisfying as it amounted to “she’s not bad enough yet” but, again, nothing I can do.  There is almost no room for true proactivity in here.  Even the most proactive responses can only happen *after* things have gotten bad.  I’m suspicious that one of the reasons treatment allows so few administrative removals and such harsh punishment for signing out has to do with keeping the beds filled, but I have no proof of that and suspicion means nothing in an atmosphere of mistrust and clouded motives.

Martha degenerated rapidly over Tuesday and Wednesday and we were looking at a possible worst-case scenario:  She’d be booted out of the program and sent to segregation, a move almost guaranteed to cause her to try to hurt herself.  Even though she’d been trying to get out of the program and avoid this very thing, having to stay in that environment was making her much, much worse.  After 15 months of working with her and seeing her thrive and stabilize, this was like a fist in the gut.

I felt helpless.  Although I was being included in the decision-making, I felt much more like part of the problem than the solution.  I knew going to treatment was going to be risky, I’d voiced my concerns early, but no one followed up, and now Martha was being dragged under by her internal demons – unleashed by programming that was supposed to help her.  I felt culpable, somehow, as if I’d failed to protect her, or sound the alarm early enough.  Now, in addition to trying to beat back her personal nightmares, she was also in danger of being subject to undeserved punishment for actions brought about by our inability to offer the support she needed.

Wednesday afternoon was jammed with the usual stuff, on top of a series of meetings to discuss what needed to happen with Martha.  By great good fortune, there were several of us advocating for her – that she’d been stable and cooperative, eager to participate and wanting help, until recently.  Although none of us knew exactly what had set off the recent chain of events, it was obvious that her current state was much much worse and she was acting out of fear and desperation.

After much staff discussion, checking with other inmates (some of whom were accusing Martha of aggressive behavior and statements), and consideration of her history, we settled on an administrative removal.  She may also have gotten a conduct order (based on her reported aggression and, in my mind, unnecessarily punitive) but I’m not sure.  That our normally reactive security staff would come to this decision and take time to understand what was happening was a goddamn miracle.  Even if they did hand out a punishment slip, I didn’t care.

Administrative removal meant she was going to go to Medium for at least a few days, to get help de-escalating and calming down, maybe a bit more support in the process.  Given the alternative, there wasn’t a better solution in sight and I’m quite grateful this was the result.  Once I heard this solution was on the table, I left. Martha was waiting in the common area and I sat down to talk with her a bit before going back to the classroom.

Her fear and panic were palpable.  She was barely able to keep from crying as we sat there, and she had obviously lost whatever composure I’d seen earlier in the week.  She knew she was in a bad place, she felt trapped, and even though she didn’t want to lash out, she couldn’t envision anything else.  I couldn’t relieve any of her fears at that moment, but simply sat with my hand on her back, trying to help her feel better for a few minutes.  Even the best-case solution had its consequences, because that’s how the prison system works.

There is almost no room for complexity or nuance.  What people need can be considered, but the solution almost always has to come from a predefined set of offerings – regardless of how well they fit the person as an individual.  We can almost never create something tailored to an individual person, but have to try and fit them into the same solution as everyone else.  DOC does this because it can’t be seen to be favoring one person over another, accommodating some needs and not others, to do something for X without doing the same for Y.

It’s why this system is a failure, and hurts everyone involved.  We’re forced into using tools that don’t fit the job – over and over and over.  We make our best efforts and the fact that some are helped is a credit to our determination and commitment. That more people are damaged and made worse by their time in prison is an ongoing statement about our desperate need for an alternative.

Milestoning

It's Personal, Novelicious, Uncategorized, Writing

Today is…important, I think.  I sent the first 4000 words of my novel to my first readers.  I’ve sent bits and pieces to folks over the last few months, but this is a solid, cohesive chunk of the book.  I know, in my mind, that this is a “big deal,” but the feelings probably won’t set in until I hear back from…The Readers.

I suppose what I’m thinking is normal.  That I wrote too much, was rambling and chaotic, pedantic and pontificating, and generally couldn’t organize one spoon in an empty drawer. The piece that gnaws at me most is that I’m not writing a purely academic piece or doing a literature review, but it would be easy to fall into that trap.  It would be easy to drop into academic mode, but it wouldn’t be good.  And, ultimately, I would be bored.

But putting forth an idea grown out of my own brain, with no formal research or literature propping it up is scary.  I worry if it’s already out there somewhere, or if it’s just pure bullshit.  The people I’ve shown it to so far love it and believe it’s important, and I do too. I feel pretty satisfied so far – I think I’ve done a far job for a first pass.  But the sense of urgency is strong and now that I have a sense of the process, I’m impatient to keep moving.

Policy or pet peeve, who knows?

Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Rants, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

Taking pictures in the facility is always a gamble. We’re supposed to avoid including doors, windows, building lines, and big pictures of the facility from the inside.  It’s a useless exercise, because a simple Google image search on “Coffee Creek Correctional Facility” brings up dozens of images of the inside and outside, including the satellite view. But I’m always careful to frame my pictures to include only the students, or equipment, or whatever.

Staff alone are allowed to freely use cameras (still photos only), the only inmates allowed to use the camera (even under staff supervision) work for LifeSkills. They take photos at events, yard photos, and so on.  But my department has a couple of cameras and I take class pictures at the beginning of class and again close to graduation.  Recently, I realized I hadn’t taken the first set of class pictures and we’re about a year into class!  Long overdue, we scheduled pictures, everyone got dolled up, and we had a lot of fun with getting people to pose and smile.  I have to admit, I gave anyone who struck a “prison pose” a hard time, but that only made us all laugh harder.

After we take pictures, but before we can let the women see or purchase them, the captain of the facility has to approve them.  She takes the camera and reviews each picture and decides if it’s “ok” or not.  She reviews the background, the poses, how close the women are to each other and whether or not they’re touching, their clothing, and anything else that might be suspicious.  If this sounds ridiculous to you, I don’t know what to say.  I suppose having the top level of management review individual photos taken by staff (who are supposed to know what is appropriate and what isn’t) could be considered an effective use of time, but that’s not my decision to make.

I took the camera to the captain and she started looking through the photos.  Almost immediately, she began scolding me because some of the women had their t-shirts untucked.  That’s right, she was scolding me because of how they were wearing their clothing.  She then pointed at one person and asked her name.  I told her and she said, accusingly “her shirt is too tight.  Why is she wearing a shirt that tight?  She must have modified it. Why is she wearing it?”

I was completely dumbfounded.  Did she expect me to have an answer?  Did she somehow think I was responsible for my students’ clothing?  What the hell was happening right now?  I said “Well, do you want to call her unit officer and tell him?”  She said “No, she needs to come see me.”  She wanted to scold this woman in person.  The captain of the facility thinks it’s a good use of her time to individually scold an inmate for wearing a shirt she thinks is too tight.  Still incredulous, I ask “do you want me to send her over?” and, of course, the answer was yes.

After all the complaining and scolding, she graciously allows me to keep all the photos and I leave.  I’m pissed.  Seriously pissed.  My students are supposed to know the rules and policies and adhere to them, whether I micro-police them or not.  I discreetly send the offending shirt-wearer over to the captain and dismiss everyone else for lunch.  When they come back, I give them a fairly stern “I don’t like being scolded for you wearing your clothing the wrong way, what the hell were you thinking?” lecture.  Not too stern, not too angry, didn’t call anyone by name, but unhappy enough.

When I finish, J raises her hand and says “In all our other pictures, we’re allowed to untuck our shirts and it’s not a problem. We didn’t know.”  And bam – I now feel like a complete a$$hat and someone who speaks before thinking or investigating.  I feel like that for a couple of minutes as I re-orient and try to make the best out of a bowl of shit soup.  I attempt to spin it as “Okay.  Going forward, make sure that you follow the ‘professional’ dress code in any pictures you take that aren’t in a casual environment” but it felt stupid and weak.  I knew they understood that I’d been given this information by the captain, but now I was caught between what the captain was saying in this instance, and what they’re allowed to do on a regular, ongoing basis.

Was the captain correct, and the untucked shirts against a largely unenforced policy?  Or are untucked shirts a pet peeve and she was acting as if her personal wish were policy when it isn’t?  What is true?  And who, if not the highest ranking security officer in the facility, could clarify this for me?

The answer is no one, and this extremely minor incident highlights one of the thorniest problems in this institution:  The inconsistent and arbitrary nature of rule and policy enforcement.  The rules and policies themselves highlight the even bigger issue of balance between maintaining safety and using power/dominance to micro-manage and control every single aspect of people’s already limited lives.  I mean, is someone having their socks turned down really a threat to the safety and security of the institution?

The fact that I even tell myself “well, maybe somewhere, something bad could come from that” makes me feel like the insanity of normalizing this environment is only a short distance away.  Having to constantly evaluate every piece of information to determine its accuracy and relevance, and not being able to trust the people who should be the authorities is nerve wracking, especially since it’s rarely clear when safety really IS the issue, not just power and control.

Romance vs Reality

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Feminism, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

I write about incarcerated women and corrections education because I see how prison (and all its attendant systems) does so much more harm than good.  The prison system was designed by men, to dominate and control other men, and those practices are even more traumatizing and harmful for women.  Women were never a significant part of the prison population until the early 90s.  Between 1990 and 1995, the number of women’s prisons in the US more than doubled, and by 2010, women made up nearly 7% of the prison population.

There are many reasons for this – ‘tough on crime’ laws, including mandatory minimums and three strikes, and increased criminalization of drug use and non-violent offenses.  What I see is that women are punished for making bad relationship decisions, being poor, uneducated, black, and having untreated mental health and addiction issues.  Literature and reporting reveal that the vast majority of women in prisons have suffered some form of abuse, with at least 25% of them reporting abuse while they were minors.

What does all of this have to do with romance?  Given all of these factors, it becomes almost impossible not to romanticize incarcerated women.  It is far too easy to think of them as innocent victims, as people at the constant mercy of men, systemic abuse and injustice, and their own broken-ness.  While all those things may be true, casting them in the role of victims and martyrs is a mistake.

When we cast people as victims and insist that that they think of themselves in that way, we remove their autonomy and their responsibility for their choices.  This is such a crucial component of working with women that it bears repeating:  We must not cast incarcerated women in the role of victims and martyrs.  When we do, we remove their autonomy, and their sense of responsibility for their own actions. Accepting their responsibility, regardless of the why, is a key step toward understanding that they can make different choices.

My advocacy does not mean that I wear blinders, or rose-colored glasses.  I am keenly aware that the women I work with have committed crimes, wreaked havoc, hurt people, destroyed their families, and left swathes of devastation in their wake.  I speak with them openly about this, because having those blunt, uncolored conversations about accepting responsibility must happen.  If they are to heal, we cannot pretend that they didn’t do terrible things, or that those choices somehow weren’t theirs.

Before I started working at CCCF, I leaned much more toward the romantic view of incarcerated people – men and women.  I had vague notions of unjust imprisonment, oppressive systems, and innocent people being victimized.  I realize now that even though those things are sometimes true, society still has to manage people who endanger themselves and others.  We don’t always do it well, which is why the system needs vigilant watchdogs and advocates and transformation, but we need to do that work with our eyes open and unclouded by romantic ideals.