Yesterday Carp and I had our first experience inside a maximum security prison, and met about fifteen inmates. We were sitting in on an Improv class- getting a feel for the population and prison before we start our book club there next month. Most of the inmates were about our age (26) with cornrows, face tattoos, dreadlocks and bright smiles.
When we arrived at the prison earlier and pulled up into the parking lot, I started to get a little bit nervous. We had no idea what we were walking into, but the only way I’ve ever learned anything in my life is by trying.
We left our phones and bags in the car, and walked into the double doors with just our person and IDs. We were immediately greeted by the security guard who asked us why we were here. We stumbled over our answers, saying we were waiting for the Volunteer Coordinator, Lila, and we were going to shadow her Improv class. The guard softened up a bit, and asked for our personal IDs, and then handed us our new prison ID cards with our picture on them.
We emptied our pockets in a bin to go through the x-ray machine, and walked through a metal detector which I set off because of my belt, watch and boots. We signed in, and then sat waiting for Lila. Lila arrived, going through security and getting a good bodily pat down, and then said hello to us. We wasted no time, and were soon heading through the doors to the Maximum Security prison side.
Arriving at a gated checkpoint, we looked up to see a man behind barred windows, telling us to swipe our new prison ID cards. He was not very much into having a personality, and gruffly ordered commands. Our ID cards lit up a green light, and the guard behind bars pressed a button which slid open the big gated bars in front of us. We walked forward, and the gated bars slid closed after us.
Welcome to maximum security prison.
On the other side of the gate, inside Max, we find ourselves outside in the chilly February air. We walk past “yard,” and see people outside in a gated area to our right, with prison guards in beige army-like uniforms standing guard. Walking straight ahead we enter the basement of an old stone building built in the late 1800s. There are inmates milling about outside the gated yard, and we say hello to them.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I decided to volunteer at the prison, but the most surprising thing to me about the whole experience was how lax the security seemed. There seems to be more security when I go in a library.
In the basement where we would be having Improv class, and holding our book club in the future, we speak with seemingly the only staff person down there: a girl at the desk who is wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. She tells us that there are already 9 people signed up for our book club, and many more asking to join. Lila says this is unprecedented for a class, usually they have to advertise heavily for the class, but news about our class spread by word of mouth.
Lila directs us toward the classroom, which is surrounded on all sides by windows so that guards can easily see in if need be. However, for the whole two hours we were down there, I never saw a guard. She points to a few other rooms where inmates are playing cards by themselves.
Soon, guys in blue jeans, black belts and t-shirts with their last names sewed on rectangular pieces over fabric over their hearts start to walk in and greet the Lila. They also all introduce themselves to Carp and I, sticking out their hands to shake and making eye contact with genuine interest. They are returning from dinner, which they all refer to as “chow.” They sit down at the table with us, and we all start to talk with one another casually.
Since we’ll be holding the book group, we asked the guys if they had read any good books lately. One guy who said he had only read three books in his life, one guy who said he hadn’t read any books in his life until he came to prison and stopped running the streets, one guy said books were his saving grace in solitary confinement, when he started talking to himself for lack of human interaction. One guy told us he was reading and studying case law. He said that it was like math- there was a certain beauty to the logic of it. He said, smiling brightly, he never would have picked a law book up though unless he was fighting for his life.
Most of them were our ages, the only seeming difference between us and them was that they lived in prison cells. But they weren’t visibly upset about it, at least they didn’t seem to be in front of us. They had a great camaraderie with each other that reminded me of every impromptu human collective I’ve ever seen in my life. Just like NCCC, these guys were thrown into a life together, and they might have never given one another a chance outside of the prison walls, but inside here they were the best of friends: supporting one another, smoothing over awkward silences and giving each other shit.
All in all, being in a maximum security prison was everything I thought it would be: people existing, and making the best of their situation. I know that we only saw a small population of the inmates that night, and they were probably the more positive and social ones, since they were able to attend clubs. But they seemed like genuine people who probably just grew up with a much different lifestyle than me.
I don’t argue that people probably need help. Most of them probably could have used more support in their life. Maybe they need mental health medications, maybe they need good role models, maybe they were traumatized early on by something and never had therapy to deal with it, maybe they were surrounded by the wrong crowds that made them feel like the only way to be was running from something. And maybe some of them were victims of racial profiling.
I don’t argue that humans can benefit from help. I just wish that our criminal justice system was actually set out to help, and not just increase the likelihood that offenders will end up in prison again. The guys last night really reminded me of my NCCC team; it seemed that they were helping each other through whatever kind of struggle being in a prison was. They made each other laugh a lot, and they made sure that their guests (us) were included. They made light of tough situations, and pulled us all through the Improv class like a team.
We played various Improv games with the guys, including a game where we had to answer questions with other questions, an echo game where we stood across from one another and echoed each others words, and then a drawing game where we had to guess what the image on the chalkboard was. It was a super interactive class; sometimes the inmates led the next activity and sometimes Lila did.
The last game we played was an imaginary ball game. We all stood around in a circle and pretended to toss an invisible ball around to one another. After a few minutes, the guys started getting creative and the basketball became a tennis ball, a ping pong ball, a hacky sac. Cleverness was congratulated, and we laughed with each person who had the next imaginative idea.
As we left, the guys all came up and shook our hands again. One of them told me all about a book I should read. One of them told me I was really quiet during the Improv session. One of them asked me a question:
“Was this just a one time thing for you guys or are you coming back? Will you tell people that you’ve been in maximum security prison before? And that they weren’t that bad of guys?”
Leaving the prison, we passed the guard at the checkpoint again, swiping our cards before leaving.
“You don’t really need to swipe your card going out unless you’re a black man in here,” Lila said casually and, upsettingly, probably truthfully.
We made it back out into the parking lot, parted ways, and Carp and I drove home in a meditative silence, taking it all in.
Photo Credit: http://www.avaduvernay.com/13th/