Breaking Barriers Behind Barbed-Wire

Image Credit: Insunlight, via Flickr

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Thick steel doors slide shut behind us with a sense of finality.

The feeling of complete entrapment makes my heart race. I’m fighting a panic attack, sweating bullets through my shirt.

Colorless walls remind me of high school, the last prison I entered – until now, that is. This is the real deal: Philadelphia Correctional Center, on the sidelines of the city right next to the dump (the irony isn’t lost on me that Philly decides to keep all its “trash,” criminals included, in one area). There are tiny slits with fogged glass for windows that let in light but don’t let you see out into the world. As we walk down desolate hallways, my heart sinks. The reality of this place begins to set in. I can’t imagine being a real prisoner, subjected to this jaded view of the outside every single day. I feel suffocated, cut off from the fresh air and sun that surrounded me only moments before.

My companions and I are part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a fairly new concept created by Lori Pompa, a teacher at Temple University. Pompa created this program to open the eyes of her students to social issues by actually immersing them inside prison. One of my first reactions when I heard of the program was to run in the other direction. Images of criminals danced in my head, angry and violent as the media had portrayed them all my life.

That first day, the closest rendition I have of prison comes from Shawshank Redemption. I doubt anything cinematic holds what I seek: the truth and realities of prison life. So when we enter the halls of prison and turn a corner only to be set face to face with a pair of prisoners, I freeze and my instincts frantically battle inside of me. The prisoners walk freely without cuffs or ankle shackles, not even escorted by a guard as you see in the movies. I feel like a cat with all its hair raised on my neck, terrified and alert as we walk down a slim corridor. The inmates keep a slow, steady pace behind us.

I desperately want to race in the other direction, but my mind tells me I need to keep going. One of my goals in college is to push my comfort zones; I think how ironic it is that I’ve taken it this far – to actually enter a maximum security prison, with nothing but a group of two female students and a female teacher for protection. I flashback to when I first heard of the class; the very idea terrified me but also sparked too much interest to deny.

One day I broached the subject with my mom. “I’ve been thinking about taking a class inside prison,” I said to her.

Instead of shooting me down as expected, she encouraged me. The thought of entering prison sent a slight quivering in my nerves, darker and more twisted than a bundle of butterflies. It was the familiar twisting anxiety that tensed my body and clenched my stomach. The more I felt I couldn’t do it, the more I wanted to push my boundaries. I decided this would be the best way to discover things, by acquiring bits of knowledge from real-life experiences that may one day wind their way onto the pages of well-crafted novels. Entering prison was sure to provide me with a boatload of these tidbits; I just wasn’t positive it would be worth the pilgrimage.

My mom did a good job of calming my quaking nerves. She told me, “I did a similar thing when I went to Earlham.”  Her relation of her experience behind prison walls in a similar course finally decided me. My initial resistance to the idea softened as she told me of her own bravery, and all the amazing memories she gained from the experience. My mom, being hard-headed and stubborn, didn’t settle when the program suffered under lack of interest and decided to become its leader.

Her fondest memory was when she convinced the warden to allow her to bring the school’s jazz band into prison. The warden agreed because he was under the impression it would be a calm affair. He was unprepared for the percussion part of this band, a lively addition of drummers. As my mom tells it, the band’s percussion rang loudly throughout the prison, bringing a touch of cheer not normally found among the dim, bland walls. The smiles on the faces of the inmates were priceless and well worth the warden’s disgruntled reaction.

With the sound of the band ringing in my imagination, I force myself to forge onward. We walk through a total of nine control-operated steel doors, becoming further engulfed inside this fortress. I feel like an animal walking to its slaughter, unable to turn back and not knowing what to expect ahead. The smell of fear hangs in the air (or is it just the foul stench of sour prison slop we’re assaulted with at the end of the hallway?). I imagine all who have walked here knowing they won’t be allowed to turn back. The saddest part is that some of them will meet their deaths in this place. I begin to wonder if I’ll ever get out, though I know reasonably we will only be trapped inside for about three hours.

Finally, we take an old, cramped and rickety elevator up a few floors and arrive at our destination: in the heart of max security, through another enclosed gate, we enter the community center with classrooms, a barber shop, and a computer room.

Then comes my second reflexive fight or flight moment. As we near the classroom, I see our inmate classmates already sitting there, waiting for us. I have to remind myself that we are secure, and steady myself, my body preparing to fight as I take the first steps inside. At that point, my life changes forever when I decide not to flee from this experience.

As my group was told during orientation to the program, prison is Murphy’s world – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. You need to be prepared for anything.

That’s not to scare you off, however. As I entered the classroom in the middle of prison for the first time, I was met with smiles and the same mix of anxiety and fear on the faces of all my “inside” classmates. We sat together in a circle, making it easier to bond and connect. Inside-Out classes are always conducted in circles for the purpose of collaboration and bringing everyone together. The first few classes focus solely on breaking barriers between “inside” and “outside” students. These ice breakers intend to portray the humanity of the “insiders,” and make everyone feel comfortable and on the same level as everyone else.

Fear actually makes a great bonding emotion. All the “outsiders” are scared to be inside prison walls for the first time, but perhaps the most stunning thing I learned is that many of the “insiders” live in constant fear. As one of my classmates revealed to me later in the course, he woke up every day scared he wouldn’t make it to the end; scared another inmate would find the opportunity to let out darkness many of these men harbored inside; scared he would face his death and never enter society as a free man again. The anger and pain lurking inside many of these men becomes difficult to keep inside and is often released in violence. Others try to keep their heads low and serve their time unnoticed.

The second week we attended class, we were told that a couple hours before, an inmate had met his death at 7:30a.m. The significance of this lay in the fact that prisoner cells don’t open until 7:30 sharp, meaning the murderous inmate had been waiting. I imagined him anxiously gripping a weapon in hand, feeling sweat pool around handcrafted edges. Standing so still; picking out his target; watching, silent. Steady.

The thought of remaining locked in a building as someone’s prisoner seemed enough to make even the calmest person full of agitation and aggression. But this is also the generic image of a prisoner painted by the media: animalistic and pacing behind bars.

This is the image I carry with me during my first visit. An image that broke down almost immediately as I look into the kind faces of all those who sat surrounding me. As we talk and overcome the barriers which separate us, everyone “inside” fell out of the stereotypical label of “criminal” and into the label of human.

They talked to us about their families waiting for them on the outside, their sons and daughters who hadn’t seen their fathers in years because their mothers wouldn’t bring them to visit. They showed us crumpled pictures of growing children, smiling despite the loss of a parent, which they kept tucked inside their shirt pockets. They talked to us about the jobs they used to have outside the walls; expressed how proud they had been to keep these jobs; lamented at the loss of their hard work, their homes taken from many of them when they entered prison. They told us how there was nothing left for them on the outside. No way to get a job, get a scholarship to further an education, or go anywhere without someone judging them for “criminal” behavior. The oldest man in the class (in his early-late 40s) was a grandfather. He told us how he used to use his hands as a carpenter building houses, but now all he uses them for is to make road signs and prison chairs, being paid six cents an hour.

By participating in this class, these insiders had a few hours every week to speak openly and be listened to, to take part in a society that had otherwise cut them off. They all looked to the future with hope and dedication; they held the same mantra: “to create a better life for myself.” I could see the sincerity in their faces when they expressed how badly they wanted to accomplish this. Their faces lit up as they envisioned the lives they would create outside these barbed-wire topped walls.

The experience I had was really once-in-a-lifetime and I would never change it for the world. My entire outlook on life and the criminal justice system altered after the class. By battling my initial fight or flight response spurred by misconceptions, I was able to connect on a deep emotional and personal level with the inmates in my class as we discussed issues of social justice, corruption, and our ultimate goal for change.

This class gave prisoners an outlet. As one insider, K. Love, fittingly put it one day, “The best thing you can do while you’re in prison is set your mind free. That’s why we all love coming to this class, learning and talking with you. Even though our bodies are held imprisoned, they can never imprison our minds. In this room is where they are set free.”

Image credit: in sunlight via Flickr

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