Reading across the lines

August 20th, 2008  |  Published in Bloomington, Pages to Prisoners

The book group I’m facilitating at the county jail met again this past week, interrupting an Uno game going on in the common area of the cell block.  I had just played a game of Uno that afternoon, sprawled out across a post-picnic blanket on a grassy patch just above the lake.  Kids splashed below in the warm water, teenage girls lounged allofly in inflatable furniture, and in the distance, people careened back and forth across the wake of motorboats.  This is one of the things that is the most difficult about going into the jail – things that are completely familiar to me, like the Uno game, in a context that is completely different to my everyday reality.  Actually going into the jail has made me realize the boundary between solidarity and being in the same boat.  I think everything that I’ve encountered about jails and prisons firmly establish where you stand.  You are a guard, you are incarcerated, you are incarcerated and in the “therepeutic” block, you are in solitary, you are in the general population, you are a family member or friend here for visiting hours, you are a volunteer.  The roles, the mobility associated with each, and the expectations of each group by the others seem hard and rigid, ruts torn deeper and deeper with all the inertia of the prison industrial complex.  I want to just think that I’m just down, but even going in with the interest of supporting incarcerated folks is mediated by the fact, told bluntly by the corrections officer who did the volunteer training, that my ability to go in is largely based on the realization that programming in the jail tends to placate the incarcerated population there.

The reading group happens in the block and has a variable number of participants.  This is affected by what people have going on at the moment and the fact that people are constantly coming in and out of the jail, coming from a DOC facility for court or returning to a DOC facility after court.  This week, only 4 folks sat down at the table, with only 1 of them having read the book to be discussed.  The book might have been part of the problem.  A few weeks ago we had decided to read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a travel account of two middle-aged men who decide to hike part of the Appalachian Trail.  It was funny enough, and met the criteria that was established by those initially interested in the group, of having a subject that seemed to be far, far from the reality of incarceration and didn’t have the self-help twelve-steppy overtones that mark some of the other programming they participate in.  Still, a few folks expressed that they couldn’t get into the book.  My favorite response to the book that I heard was one word – “quitters”, as the protagonists seemed to spend as many nights sleeping in hotels and eating at diners as they did in the woods.  As I read through the book myself, I was a little worried that the book centered on this activity that represented an idleness and mobility; to spend weeks just hiking without worrying about jobs, families, or the things that a lot of the things that people in the jail talk to me about as concerns; that it would seem just insensitive.  Still, it’s unfair and just not true to make assumptions about people’s situations or their reactions in the context of their lives.

So what is my place here in the jail?  Reading, for all the reasons that anyone loves it, with the additional weight of it being an activity that can happen, relatively unhindered, even within the constraints of incarceration, seems to be an important part of people’s lives at the jail.  People talk about the books that they read, and pass them around.  I remember a conversation starting with “Remember that Marilyn Manson biography …”, the book having apparenly made its rounds through the block.  There’s no question that books are important to people in jail.  Having someone come in to facilitate a discussion group about books seems of more questionable value. For the men in the cell block where the programming happens, their days are filled with different groups, many of them focussed around rehabilitation, I think that one more structured activity that involves a group and a discussion just doesn’t seem that appealing.  Volunteering in the jail, there seems to be such an impasse between what corrections officials and non-profits think people who are incacerated need and what people who are incarcerated say they need.  I think that more than anything, people need to not be incarcerated, because dealing with all the other things in life become frustratingly cumbersome to impossible.  Beyond that I think the concerns of incarcerated people are the same as a lot of people that I know, obviously with varying degrees of severity: economic security, a safe, comfortable place to live, help sorting out relationships and family.  Those are such large, ambiguous things, but it’s the way I can most accurately express it.

I like going into the jail because it has made me have to reevaluate how I think about other people and about prison issues as “issues”.  But, even though I feel like I’m getting something out of my volunteer work, the exchange doesn’t exactly seem equal.  One of the men interested in the reading group said he would talk to others in the block to guage the actual interest and to get some input about what format would be best.  We talked about two things that would be an improvement – meeting once a month instead of biweekly and reading shorter works of fiction.  One thing that seems like something that I can really offer is just giving people access to books.  The Monroe County Public Library has a sweet jail library program, but the men I work with said that while they used to get to go to the library once every two weeks, they now can only go once every 4 or 5 weeks.

I’ve also sporadically tutoring math in the jail, and had been working with someone who just passed his GED exams.  Working in this capacity seems like I can offer people something of myself that seems more useful, but it’s still hard.  The person who just passed his GED said that one of the reasons he wanted to get his GED was so he could go into the armed forces when he was released.  I don’t want to see anyone join the armed forces, but I’m afraid that, facing the realities of the current economy, and the additional challenges that someone with a criminal record faces getting a job, the options are limited.  It’s so frustrating that I, and the things I believe in, can’t offer an alternative.  This makes me feel like I’m not in a position to do what people really need.  I can give people books, or some tricks to solving math problems, but I can’t give people jobs or build houses.  It makes me feel like I’m not doing the right thing. Everyone, and I mean everyone everyone and not just incarceration people, need inspiration and tools, to be sure, but it seems really narrow sighted to think that they’re enough.