Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Teaching in Prison

We all know the figures: we rival China and several Middle Eastern countries in the number of prisoners we execute; we jail Black and Hispanic men at alarmingly high rates (they make up 62% of the prison population despite comprising only 25% of the national population); we incarcerate Black women at rates anywhere from ten to thirty-five times higher than White women; and we throw the book at drug users.

There's knowing and knowing.

For the past year, I've been teaching plays to a group of female prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, known informally as MCI-W. It's not a weekly gig, although I would like it to be. At the moment, I show up every ten weeks or so, books in hand. I can't bring cookies, candy, or handouts, just my paltry insights and what I hope is a pleasant smile. My first couple of sessions weren't as trying as I expected. Another faculty member who volunteers asked if I was horrified by the setting. I wasn't, I told her, affecting something of a tough girl demeanor. And, truth be told, the institution could be far worse. Yes, it's stolid and overbearing, and doors clang alarmingly as one is buzzed through successive entries. The halls and rooms are well lit, though, and there are plenty of inviting public spaces: rooms for sitting and watching t.v., a library (sorely in need of more books), and a gym. One night I arrived early and witnessed a line-dancing class in session, the prisoners enthusiastically grooving to silly music. Some of them whooped and others smiled. It didn't seem bad at all.

Last night got to me.

We were to discuss Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, that old standby. I haven't taught the play in a long time, and frankly it was never one of my favorites. Rereading the script over the weekend, I had one of those, "so that's what I was missing all these years!" moments (the reverse of "what the hell did I ever see in that book?"). The artistry of Miller shone through every page, from the plebeian poetry to the kinesic gestures, such as Linda's constant mending of nylons and jackets, effecting with her hands what she can't repair in her family. Miller's formal solution to the problem of representing double time on stage (i.e. objective reality unfolding alongside Willy's reveries) is brilliant, a synthesis of expressionism and good old realism. I also read a terrific production history of the play, Brenda Murphy's study in Cambridge UP's Plays in Production series. Boy oh boy, what I would have given to see the original production! What a talented ensemble: Elia Kazan's classic Method direction, Jo Mielziner's minimalist design, and Alex North's plangent score.

Then there's the story, as perfect a vehicle for exploring the shortcomings of the American dream as ever devised. Even if you have only half a heart, you can't help but think about a society that throws aside a 63-year-old man who is used up. So I sit down to spend 90 minutes discussing the inequities of 1948 with women in 2008 who experience firsthand the gap between what we profess to be as a society and what we too often are. Don't get me wrong: some of these women undoubtedly deserve to do time. There are murderers and embezzlers in my group: women who did away with their husbands (or at least tried) and women who had good jobs but nonetheless helped themselves to a little extra. One of the more eloquent prisoners, a soft-spoken, sweet-faced girl in her twenties, quietly shared insight after insight, the result of careful, thoughtful reading. She pricked my interest, and after the session I asked the officer manning the visitor's room about her crime.

"She killed a man when she was fifteen. Thirty years."

This particular officer has a heart as ample as her figure (she qualifies as a "traditional woman," in the words of Precious Ramotswe). Not all of the correctional staff are that kind. The officer clicked her tongue in sympathy and related her own story: alcoholic father; brutal beatings; one brother already dead from heroin. Several times in her youth, her fingers tightened around a kitchen knife. She doesn't know what kept her from stabbing the miserable s.o.b. "There but for the grace of God . . ." and her voice trailed off. "I could be wearing a uniform in there instead of a different one out here," she added thoughtfully. As to why a teenager would stab a man, she can't provide details, but she suspects the girl was defending herself. To my successive questions--why was she tried as an adult? why didn't she have a decent lawyer?--the officer shrugged.  It's as much a mystery as her decision not to stab her father all those years ago.

I drove home, happy for the substantial Irish whiskey Rod placed in my hands. I luxuriated in the smoky sting of the liquor while listening to Rod's attempts at consolation.  He pointed out that for a few hours, I've given the prisoners something else to think about. Have I? Do they really need to read what they experience firsthand?

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