A variety of curious students meets a variety of nervous men. All ages of men and all levels of anxiety. The irony that muscular, imprisoned, and middle aged men could be nervous about meeting people only half their weight, age, and experiences was truly eye opening. This was the first thing I noticed at the combined Inside Out meeting. It hung to me throughout the remainder of the class. People kept admitting, “Were y’all as nervous about today as we were?” or “My hands have been shaking since this thing began.” My reply, kindly, was of course-we were nervous. I realized though the levels of nervousness were at two ends of the spectrum. These men were far more nervous about this meeting than the students were, but I’ll never let them know that. The realization was not only humbling, but interesting. Students had envisioned many possibilities about how the class would proceed. Large guards checking our pockets at the door, filing us down a long corridor to a warm and smelly closed room, then to only meet large gang men that were highly uninterested in what Dr. Allred or any of our personal days entailed. Reality was the opposite of the envisioned. There was no security search, long corridor, or smelly room. The room was enclosed and a tad bit warm, but nicer than anticipated. If only society could sit down and chat with these people they call criminals. These people that were once known as part of society. Are we not all criminals? We have all committed a crime; texting and driving, speeding, or even underage alcohol consumption. The only difference in being inside these walls and outside-society didn’t get caught being criminals, only the inmates were caught.
As we sat in a large circle, looking around the room at all the different faces and all the different clothes. This less pleasing observation challenged me for almost the last hour of the class. An Inside student had mentioned only minimal and medium security prisoners stayed at Floyd County. As the daughter of an ex-inmate, I knew where to look next. Shoes grabbed my attention. All of the men there wore them, but some were different than others. Some were allowed the privilege of running shoes with laces. Others were confined to a simpler style, flat shoes with no laces that can be referred to most athletes as ‘slides’. I fought to keep this as only an observation and never a judgement. From chair to chair the clothes became captivating. From bright whites, to dingy, to slightly dark and dirty, to brown and stained all of the men wore almost the same style of clothes. A simple no logo t-shirt, with or without a long sleeve under shirt, and pants with a navy stripe down the sides. These clothes were meant to be white, but not all of them were. It made me wonder if the men in bright whites had only been here a short time, or were they privileged with more in-prison funds to buy different sets of clothes. It made me curious about how long a man would have to work, sweat, and not clean those clothes to take the brightness out of them and turn them to seaweed green. I then wondered if some of these men simply didn’t care about their appearance and had not changed from their work shift that day. Then I recalled my first observation.
As I was transfixed by these thoughts many emotions pulled at me. To not have a choice in clothing. To not have a choice in when you do laundry. To not have a say anymore. I enjoyed these people that were so honest and true. These men I had only known for a couple of hours were now captivating my emotions. They could easily be a friend of mine, a coworker, or even family member. These inmates were human beings, only fifteen minutes from my small college bubble. Observation three was an easy one- these men enjoyed our company. As the closing of the class began each person wanted to say more and talk faster. Their opinions had probably been disregarded since their first day of trial. Now that they had a chance to have a voice again, each one wanted more time for talking. I just wanted more time to listen to them. When the Outside students stood to leave, the man beside me asked with a little chuckle in his voice, “Do yall wanna join us for dinner?” My heart tilted at the thought of what these men ate on a regular basis and the limited amount of human interaction they would have amongst themselves. I told the man a united supper sounded like a great idea for the class and then walked to the door sadly realizing next week was a separate meeting.
The irony in the American prison system, from a highly personal perspective, is that human beings put human beings in prison and once they are in prison they are no longer referred to as humans- they become solely prisoners. People talk of the system as being unfair, human beings make up this justice system, so these people are unfair. It’s unfortunate, unfair, and unjust how society treats people that were caught doing wrong. I am speaking for all of them- the abusers, the murderers, and the minimal offenders- We are sorry. We have learned the lesson. We do not deserve this lengthy sentence. Every human makes a mistake, but only certain ones are punished. Too often they are punished much longer than necessary, so long in fact that they forget what they are supposed to be sorry for anyways.
Spring, 2018 Issue