The last time I posted to ALT/space I felt very uncertain where I stood as a teacher. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back into the prisons at all. It helped that before the assault in August I had written out a very clear vision statement for what I wanted my year of teaching to look like. I proceeded slowly and by the time we started up again at the prison in September. I felt reassured that the work I am doing is important to both my students and myself. Our first couple weeks of classes have been slow because of some conflicts between my supervisor and the prison, but…it’s still been time well spent.
Three weeks ago our site supervisor brought in washtubs for the inmates on E Section to do laundry – their socks and underwear were getting lost when they were sent off site to be cleaned. Somehow a washtub ended up in someone’s cell. This meant trouble.
Dr. Mac being the gentle Buddhist that he is, went around to all the inmates and guards to make right. At the inter-personal level, the issue was dealt with. For whatever reason ‘the powers that be’ are making the rest of his job difficult. In turn, our job is difficult too. We couldn’t get security clearance for a lesson last week.
In a way it worked out fine, the five of us sat outside in the sun and chatted about prison. There had been a shake down the previous week. They found tobacco, cell phones and knives. One of the guys on our tier got kicked off for smuggling methadone in his jumpsuit. Dr. Mac gave us a crash course in gang activity in the Baltimore prison system when he explained how the drugs get in. There seems like so much incentive to traffic from the outside, and no good reason coming from the prison not too.
I come away from the conversation feeling like I belong as a scribble in the margins of a bad cop show. Sometimes it makes the work feel pretty futile. We are working in such a dangerously corrupt institution. It’s easier to get drugs in than art supplies. Maybe we should have guards smuggle crayons while they’re at it…
I want to know where the justice is in all this. Isn’t the point to alleviate suffering and reverse the cycles of wrongdoing? I’ve been here long enough to know this is all about the business of punishment. The core of the American prison system has nothing to do with repairing harm.
Pessimism aside, I feel empowered working with a group of dedicated artists and peacemakers. But I feel myself pushing away. I keep telling myself not to get too attached to this work, not to make a career out of it. It will only break my heart if I try to fight the system on a daily basis.
Don’t think I am discouraged. We have a few victories I can’t ignore. We have two fantastic new interns who are serious about art therapy and sharing the healing in making. On our first lesson one student looked at us with the biggest grin and said “you came back!” and one man who arrived at E Section over the summer made his own art because he felt so compelled to add to the work of the other students that was posted on the wall.Every time we walk out of that room in that damp and bizarre corner on the detention center the energy is a little lighter. I feel so tiny in the face of a system wrought with corruption, but for now I feel like our classes are enough.