Skip to main content

The Day Before Prison

Tomorrow is a prison visit to Jorge, the student who is in chapter 10 in my book.
I always dread these.
It goes like this: I get up earlier than I want to and find something to wear that doesn't involve blue, khaki, or forest green. Red is not expressly forbidden but it is discouraged, because of gang connotations. I can't have a scarf and a rain jacket must be clear. I have to measure the length of my shorts or skirt if it's hot weather.
Then I drive to east Oakland to pick up Jorge's family, then drive to Orinda and meet a wonderful incredible generous friend, who then drives us 3 1/2 hours to the least beautiful part of California.
We then go in and get treated like we’re not people by the guards, and if they’re feeling particularly spiteful, they insult or his sister or grandmother because they know they can get away with it. Last time they leered at his sister and made fun of her for wearing a "see-through" shirt. (It wasn't at all.) This gave them an excuse to have a discussion about how inappropriate it was (it wasn't) while looking at her chest.
They count our earrings and rings, make sure we don’t have any other piercings, turn our pockets inside out, and send us through a metal detector barefoot. Then we wait in a metal cage to be buzzed through to walk along the walkway with razor wire to the visiting area.
Then we get to visit and it’s incredibly wonderful to see him. But it’s also dehumanizing and demoralizing. The inmates can’t touch the vending machines, the whole place smells like a middle school cafeteria, the guards are watching your every move, and they sometimes just stop all prisoners coming into the visiting room for reasons we don’t know.
Then we leave his family to visit a little longer and we either go visit his former cell mate who is dying of lung cancer and has literally no visitors ever except for us, or if his walk is on lockdown like last time, we go to McDonald’s, which is the only place to go in town. And I mean the ONLY place to go.
Then we go back and pick up his family, which is always interesting because they can’t use cell phones to call us when they’re ready to be picked up and we can’t wait in the waiting room, so if we move the car we have to sort of hope we see each other. I’ve seen people just waiting aimlessly out there before, looking panicked because they have no way to communicate with the person who’s picking them up.
Then my friend drives us 3 1/2 hours back to Orinda and I drive his family back to east Oakland.
I dread it every time. I wouldn’t be able to go without my friend, I don’t think. And at the same time, it’s so wonderful to see him and such an honor to be a part of this person’s life and now a part of his family’s life. It is a privilege to be trusted.
But my life would be so much easier without it, and I selfishly think that the night before every prison visit.
Then I think how much harder it would be if it were my child, parent, or partner.
Then I think how much harder it would be if I didn’t speak English or had been in the prison system before.
And I struggle between gratitude that I’m able to do this and help this family and hopefully encourage this young man, and anger that it is so hard even for me, a person with so much privilege, to do this.
So, that’s my day tomorrow.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It's Not the Teaching

My favorite thing about teaching is not teaching. I'm sure there are teachers who love that part of it - who live for the moment that a lightbulb goes on in a student's mind and who are fascinated by pedagogy -- who stay up thinking about different ways of explaining a math problem or a grammatical concept.

I don't mind those things, and I like some of them. And, of course, it is wonderful to see that light bulb go on. But that isn't why I personally teach.

For me, the reason to teach is the whole child.

I love dealing with their brains. Their brains are so different at different ages and stages of development! Sometimes students are absolutely infuriating but it's totally developmentally appropriate. Sometimes you can almost literally see the neural pathways forming, like when third graders start questioning why Native Americans are called Indians, and I want to cheer them on: "Yes! Think things through! Taken nothing for granted!"Sometimes they are so i…

"There Are No Children Here"

This book was the one that inspired me to write Literally Unbelievable: Stories of an East Oakland Classroom. It is the story of two brothers growing up in a housing project in Chicago. The title comes from their mom saying, "But you know, there are no children here. They've seen too much to be children."

I was reminded of this book recently when I had dinner with a former student. She's 14 and in 8th grade. She was telling me about what she and her close friends have been through: homelessness, near-homelessness, sex trafficking, seeing people shot, friends who have died, parents and siblings in prison, watching drug deals, being locked in closets while family members smoked crack, and (unsurprisingly) depression, psychosis, and suicidal ideation.

SHE'S IN MIDDLE SCHOOL.

We have to do better by these kids. They are being robbed of their childhood.

What to do?

Well, raising awareness is key. That's why I wrote Literally Unbelievable, so that people can under…