Who talks about prisoners these days? Certainly not the US presidential candidates or most others up for election in 2008, unless it's in tangential "get tough on crime" rhetoric. In the media, quality coverage such as Jeff Gerritt's Pulitzer-nominated series on medical care in Michigan prisons, which appeared last year in The Detroit Free Press, is overshadowed by courtroom dramas and legal thrillers. MSNBC has built something of a franchise in its "To Catch a Predator" series, which lures people to a Dateline set, humiliates them by reading their chat room transcripts with someone they thought was underage, and then calls on a police crew to rather unnecessarily tackle them in an arrest sequence right out of a summer blockbuster.
Authentic communication from and about prisoners exists, but it's relegated to a niche market outside of most print and online news sources, of influential political blogs, of the catalogues of big publishers, and of the speeches of election year candidates. Presumably, its minimal share of attention is justified because decision makers think their audiences don't care much about prisons and the people in them.
It's an odd assumption in the face of the prison industrial complex's monstrous growth. We incarcerate 500% more people today than we did thirty years ago. The United States is home to a mere five percent of the world's total population, and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population: 2.3 million people, most of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. And that number doesn't include those living under the thumb of the criminal justice system: probationers, parolees and those on tethers, the electronic monitoring devices worn by people on house arrest.
This makes the vacuum of nuanced coverage of prisons and prisoners in the media and by the candidates all the more baffling.
The dissonance between the prison industrial complex's growth and the de facto denial of how it affects all of us struck me last year when I wanted to facilitate a writing workshop in a medium-security men's prison in Massachusetts. I'd been doing similar work in Michigan prisons and detention centers through the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), beginning my freshman year at the University of Michigan. I was drawn in because I love writing, because I love working with people, and here was a place where they came together. At the same time, I wanted to venture toward the places where I'd been told, in a thousand ways, I shouldn't want to be. So many of my family members were appalled when I began. I was too young, too female, too inexperienced.
Workshops became a constant in my life; not only those that I facilitated, but others that were also part of PCAP. It was hard. It was hilarious. It made me a better writer. I loved it so much that I took on more leadership helping to initiate a project that supports incarcerated writers and artists; assisting with the annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners; organizing prison-related events in Ann Arbor; serving as a discussion facilitator for a university class that wrestled with prisons; attending performances in and outside of prison walls; returning artwork to an incarcerated man's mother who lived near where I grew up; and exchanging letters for two years with a writer who was locked up in northern Michigan-too far for the PCAP arm to reach.
After moving to Boston I looked for ways to get back inside. Though PEN, New England's prison writing program, I thought I'd found a way in.
At the orientation for new volunteers, two representatives of the prison gushed about how much they valued folks coming. In Michigan, the prisons I worked in were high security, and at this lower level facility outside Boston, I was excited at what seemed to be an uncommon openness to creative spaces. What, you mean a corrections officer won't need to be in the room with us? We have it to ourselves? We can freely bring most materials in and out of our workshops?
Visions of an unusually strong workshop floated in my head. More than just a fun couple of hours a week, I've experienced these workshops as profound spaces of transformation and empowerment. They aren't to be taken lightly.
The prison's representatives gave a moving testament to how much they valued volunteers who were themselves formerly incarcerated. There was a nod to role-modeling.
The volunteers were then informed that a condition of our coming inside to facilitate workshops was that we were not to have any contact with anyone who is or had been incarcerated in a prison or jail, in any state, ever.
The reps made a big point of this. They told a story about one of the best volunteers they ever had, a Native woman who led extraordinary spiritual ceremonies that resonated with a great deal of the inmates. It came out that she was married to a man incarcerated in Indiana.
"We had to let her go," said one of the representatives. "It was such a shame."
I was startled by the contradiction in the prison's policy: the very folks they encouraged to volunteer-former prisoners-were not people other volunteers were permitted to know. While I might fathom that this prison's policy was intended as a security measure, the shear breadth of it-not knowing anyone who'd been incarcerated in any prison or jail ever-seems to leave common sense aside.
With the prison industrial complex growing as feverishly as it is, with our nation's economic interests increasingly bound up with keeping more and more people behind bars for longer and longer periods of time, no one will be untouched. We will all know someone (or many people) who has been put in a cell. It is inevitable.
I know many. I'm related to some, built friendships with others, and still others have been my colleagues. Many I know in Michigan, a few in Indiana, others in Massachusetts. For the few years I lived in Boston, I lived and worked in a community called Haley House, where I interacted daily with poor men, many of whom had been in and out of the criminal justice system. I move within progressive circles where my friends and allies practice civil disobedience, allowing themselves to be arrested to protest the prison in Guantánamo Bay, the war in Iraq, or the military base in Ft. Benning, GA, that trains its students in torture techniques.
I wasn't willing to deny these relationships. I told the prison's representatives about them at the orientation. I also testified to having experience in prisons, offered to supply letters of recommendation that could account for my work, and was pleased to have PEN New England back me up in my request to move forward as a volunteer.
I was told the final decision would be put to a particular lieutenant. After eight months, after the writing workshop's cycle had begun and ended, after constant phone calls and emails, no decision was ever offered. The prison was spared the scrutiny of a yes or no answer by waiting me out.
While I'll admit to my disappointment with this prison, I don't offer up the story to vent. It's more pertinent to understand that those 2.3 million men and women and children in prison are real people. While they are disproportionately people of color and poor-hardly the demographic given center stage in media and electoral campaigns-they are connected to other people in a thousand ways. We bear profound responsibility for the prison industrial complex we've built.
We must notice. Human lives are at stake.
There is already a movement that challenges the prison industrial complex and acts from the belief that it's real people inside those walls, and that real families are affected. The movement also acknowledges that victims of crimes are real people too, whose experiences deserve understanding, not media caricature or political exploitation.
Consider the Prison Creative Arts Project, a collaborative organization that facilitates writing, art, drama, and music workshops in prisons, detention centers and urban schools throughout Michigan. It's produced 13 annual exhibitions of art by Michigan prisoners at the University of Michigan, facilitates one-on-one arts training with people who are incarcerated and supports artists who are released from prison by connecting them with working artists in the communities they return to.
Consider The Sentencing Project, a national organization that documents the disturbing trends in the prison industrial complex while agitating for viable alternatives to incarceration and current sentencing law.
Consider PEN America's Prison Writing Program, which has provided mentoring, workshops, readings and publication to incarcerated writers since 1971.
Consider the Women's Prison Association, which advocates for women with histories in the criminal justice system. It particularly supports a woman's need for housing, employment and health care when she returns to her community.
Consider Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, which challenges the death penalty through constant interaction with citizens, media and policy makers. Since 1976, MVFR has contended that legal executions lead to yet another family losing a loved one to violence, while capital trials absorb dollars that would be better put to victim services and law enforcement.
Most of all, consider yourself-and your own stake, intentional or not, in a system that will continually and quietly shape the direction of our country unless we agitate for an alternative.
Anna Clark is a freelance journalist and fiction writer living in Detroit, MI. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Utne Reader, Women's eNews, Bitch Magazine, Writers' Journal, RH Reality Check, and other publications. She maintains the literary and social justice website, Isak.
Copyright © 2008 The Women's International Perspective