This little, dingy classroom in the front of the school corridor is hot. It makes me sneeze and smells like casserole and bathroom cleaner. Sunlight streams in through the wall of cracked open windows and muffled cries of geese periodically burst into the room.
This room is holy. The space is wisdom. The uncomfortable, graffiti covered, wooden chairs have held the best of society’s outcasts, crying out and fighting for hope, humanity, and freedom. I am honored to be here, but I do not belong. The wisdom of these men and their willingness to share puts my own reluctance and hesitancy to shame.
Last Wednesday evening, 20 students, accompanied by professors Barry Hart and Gloria Rhodes, ventured to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania to experience the Alternative to Violence Program (AVP) at Graterford State Correctional Institute.
We went in to the prison all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, our time spent in workshops led predominately by inmate (or resident) facilitators. We were broken into three groups, with about six residents, six EMU students, and an outside volunteer facilitator in each group.
Many of the men who spent time with us in the workshops are serving life sentences, facing drug charges, or serving various other sentences. These are the men we’re trained by society to hate, to dehumanize, and to simply forget.
These are the “bad guys” and we are safer without them, or so we have been told. But these “bad guys” almost instantly became our friends and our brothers through the AVP program.
During the workshops, we talked about violence, intervention, communication, justice, and respect. We shared deeply, and experienced each other’s pain, hope, and questioning. We were able to see each of the residents as more than a number, more than a sentence, and not as a mere inmate, but as a valuable human being.
Separated from family, friends, and home, one man told me he was arrested around the time when he would have gone to college. He compared his experience of separation from the ones he loves to the experience of going away to college, but much, much further away.
Another man spoke of his “three ladies”: his mother, his sister, and his daughter. His eyes sparkled, brimming with tears as he told us that he will see his nearly 16-year-old daughter in December. He was arrested when she was 14, and has written a letter to her for every day since.
One of the younger guys in the group shared that he has been in prison and detention systems since the age of 10, and has never been in a situation where violence was not the norm.
Each of us in the group from EMU had to experience daily the harsh, blatant reality that we are free, but the friends we made are not. We walked through security, were escorted by guards to our classrooms, ate lunch in the staff dining hall, were escorted out and went back through security again, driving back to our wonderful host families.
Many of the men we met are sentenced based on acts they committed as 14, 16, 18 year old men – arguably boys. Think about that for a minute. Imagine spending your whole life incarcerated for a choice you made at 16.
In writing this article, I realize I am only speaking to one reality: the reality of the residents and the experiences they shared with us. Of course, when a crime is committed there has to be some form of accountability. One reality does not make the other less valid, only incomplete.
Through this experience, I have come to see that the stories of men and women who are incarcerated are not done justice when told only from the perspective of the courts and the prison system.
As Adam Gopnik points out in The Caging of America, the United States currently puts more black men in prison, on probation, and on parole than were enslaved in the US in 1850. How can such a system be called criminal “justice?”
One of the men in our group was on crutches, and when I asked him what had happened he told me a guard had slammed his leg in a door. In our classes at EMU, we often hear about structural violence and the overuse of power, but how often do we experience it firsthand?
How can we learn to live better in the context of prison?
What I hope to do with this article and what AVP does through its workshops is to address the injustices done to those in prison and challenge people to see beyond a sentence.
What is it that really separates us from those inside a jail? What if we allowed ourselves to see the women and men behind bars for their stories and their humanity instead of an act?