Jean Trounstine, professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts, writes about taking her class to visit a prison.
...the students take a tour of Billerica House of Correction, where they experience confinement to some degree and listen for an hour to an incarcerated man talk about his life and what it is like to be behind bars....to some degree.
The tours are perfunctory, showing the students what a prison looks like on the inside and letting them feel what it is like to be there, though a short visit where all the students know they are free to leave cannot possibly convey that.
This time, when the twenty of us entered, there were only a few men in their brownish beige uniforms sitting at tables. Another two were talking to the guards who policed the room, two perched at a computerized station at one end. The students all took turns entering a cell to see what it is like, a rather disturbing experience on many levels for most of them. One student, we’ll call her Sofia, suddenly turned toward me as Spanish was heard above us. She pointed up at a window where a man smiled widely and pressed his face against the [window].
“That’s my brother,” Sofia said, her eyes filling with tears.
I looked up and he waved at me, his sister’s teacher. Sofia looked away.
I asked the young woman if she had known he would be here, and yes, Sofia said, she knew he was in this facility but no, she had no idea she might see him. She seemed torn, wanting to look, wanting to hide. She said under her breath as others continued their entrance into cells, as far as she knew, he had no hope of ever not doing drugs. She’d lost touch, she said. She couldn’t imagine he might be doing OK.This tour was suddenly anything but perfunctory.
Prison became about loneliness, about being apart, about the kind of pain that happens when families break up. It was no longer just about this space or this room or that hallway. Sofia’s brother, as close as he was, was nowhere near his sister. And would not be for a long time, perhaps never. She understood that and so did I.Prison incorporates all kinds of discomforts--punishing a man for complaining about the cold by confiscating his thermal underwear for the winter, turning on lights that shine into each cell all night long.
People think of that kind of discomfort and try to decide how they would withstand those challenges. Could I deal with strip searches? Could I keep my mouth shut when a guard calls me a faggot? Could I get used to sleeping on a mattress only a couple of inches thick? Could I stay sane crowded into a cell with five other men?
The real misery, though, is being apart from family and friends. A prison tour usually cannot even touch that fact.
When we exited Billerica that day, Sofia told the other students about her brother behind bars. Now, after walking through Billerica, and after being with Sofia, they understood why prison is not just a physical place, but a deep wound.Families who have someone in prison too often cope with that deep wound alone. Those who know we have a family member in prison don't know what to say, so they say nothing. We say nothing because--...wanting to look, wanting to hide...-- letting on that we are hurting can elicit the simplistic and cruel "if you do the crime, you do the time". If anyone understands the true meaning of that breezy platitude, it is prison families.
Prison sentences are handed out like candy at a classroom Valentine party. We should be sure the sentence is worth a broken family.