I took this one morning, just before walking in. The light is streaming down near the entrance, illuminating both the arrivals and departures.
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.
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.