There is nothing like a healthy dose of perspective. It is so easy for me to take for granted all of the privileges that make up my daily life. For example, I have endless choices of what to eat at restaurants or buy at the grocery store; the freedom to decide where I want to live, work, and visit; and the right to keep all of my skeletons in the privacy of my own personal closet. I often fall into the routine of forgetting just how fortunate I am and just how challenging my life would be if I had gotten caught making certain mistakes that could have easily landed me behind bars. After paying a few visits to the Reforming Arts class at Lee Arrendale State Prison (LASP), I learned three powerful lessons that stuck like glue to the walls of my heart:
It was lunchtime when I learned a lesson in sharing. Most of the women in the Reforming Arts class went off to the cafeteria while a few stayed behind for handmade “spring rolls.” This innovative meal consisted of a flour tortilla shell filled with Ramen Noodles and ground beef, topped with a savory sweet-and-sour sauce made from blending cherry Kool-Aid powder, water, and crushed Cheetos. Once the spring rolls were formed, they were carefully placed between a hot flat iron to give them a warm, toasty crunch. These delicacies aren’t easy to come by with costly commissary prices and when there is only one woman who has the culinary skills to make them “just right.” Still, when it came time to eat, the first thing this one student did, without hesitation, was offer her spring roll to me. I could feel my eyes well up and a lump begin to form in my throat. How could she, in an environment that is devoid of decent food, be so generous with what little she had? As it turns out, spring rolls are just too delicious not to share. I had come face-to-face with a kind of raw selflessness that cracked me wide open.
On another visit, I was reminded of my freedom. It being holiday season, like many people, my thoughts were crowded with travel plans and gift ideas. In the midst of all these distractions and after having so much fun watching the students’ improv performances, I found myself a little disconnected with the reality that I was a free person inside of a prison. After class, I asked one of the students, a young, hilarious, bright woman, “So when are you getting out?” I watched as her playful look became heavy and sad. She answered, “Not for a while. I have 4 years to go.” I was speechless. Damn. Four years? An entire college career? 48 months? For four years this incredible spirit, with all of her potential, all of her light, and all of her talent, would be trapped in prison? It was a hard pill to swallow. In that moment, as I remembered my freedom, I was reminded that she, and so many others like her, are trapped in cages for years and years to come.
“Good morning, class. I want to ask everyone to share your name and something fun and interesting about yourself.” My third lesson reminded me of the enormous privilege that comes with having a clean criminal record. In addition to numerous housing, employment, and other social advantages that are mine to take for granted, I became deeply aware of my unexamined right to conceal my wrongdoings, my skeletons, and my shadows. As we went around the room, some of the women were speechless, unsure of how to talk about themselves without including some explanation, some account of how they got to be locked up. One woman began talking about some of the events that led to her incarceration and I interrupted her, “You don’t have to explain any crimes here. Did I start out my introduction with my laundry list of past crimes? Of course not, because I know I can keep those skeletons in my own personal closet. And in this space, you can do that too.”
Incarceration dehumanizes people on many levels, but this instance was a perfect illustration of how prison can make people feel like all of who they are boils down to a crime they did or did not commit. Human beings are so intricate, so multifaceted, and so diverse that it is simply impossible to define them according to a few moments in time. To me, it is a crime to limit complex, ever-changing people to one or a few past actions. Yet, these incarcerated students, and many others like them, are constantly being told, explicitly and subtly, that they are not people—they are criminals. Incarcerated people deserve to know in their heart of hearts that they are not their crimes. They are people. Interesting, complicated, ever-evolving, clusters of mind, body, and spirit, just like everyone else. Just like me. Just like you. I was reminded of my right to decide who gets to know the darkest corners of my past and I saw one of the ways incarceration and criminal records deny people the right to be an imperfect person just like everyone else.
Three lessons. Three opportunities to confront my otherwise invisible privilege and expand my limited perspective. Three reasons to be forever grateful to the incredible women imprisoned at LASP and to Wende Ballew of Reforming Arts for making all of this possible.