Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prison: An Inside Out Perspective

My first experience of the Miami-Dade Correctional Institute was on a bike ride to Everglades National Park. It is a sprawling, drab looking complex surrounded by barbed wire at the edge of the Everglades. Standing there, in front of its incongruously small sign, the prison seemed to me just as exotic as the flora and fauna of the surrounding Everglades.

Indeed, the prison reminded me of the alligators that populate the area. Placid on the outside, neither pose an immediate threat. Yet, both seemed to be lying in wait, ready to swallow the reckless or unwitting wanderer. To me, the prison, like alligators, evoked a sense of foreboding. 

They also evoked a weird fascination. 

I couldn’t help it; I had to stop and take a selfie. Along with photos of alligators, iguanas, and tropical birds documenting my Everglades adventure, there’s me in front of the Dade Correctional Institute: “hey mom, look at me in front of a prison, LOL!” 

Not once did I think of the actual people living within. When it comes to causes, like the environment, domestic violence, education, the arts, homelessness, or world hunger, we all have our thing. The plight of prison inmates has never been my mine. Maybe it’s the former prosecutor in me, but other than Orange is the New Black, prisoners were not on my radar. 

In retrospect, I must have subconsciously considered them lost causes who have only themselves to blame.

Fast forward a few months and I am outside the very same prison, waiting to meet a woman who has been incarcerated for almost five years. I am to act as her mentor as part of the Ladies Empowerment Action Program (LEAP,) which  provides entrepreneurial training to women about to be released from prison. 

Thirteen fellow volunteers and I cluster at the entrance to the prison. We are dressed conservatively, no jewelry, with only our driver’s license and car keys, per instructions from Yvette, one of LEAP’s fairy god mothers. The prison officials were expecting us, yet kept us waiting almost an hour in the blazing sun before letting us in. They did not provide an explanation for the delay and I suppose there is no reason why they should. After all we had an appointment at a prison, not dinner reservations. 

Still, it seemed inconsiderate. I felt powerless at not being able to demand to speak to a manager. The same emotion as when subjected to Byzantine rules and surly TSA agents at airports. In prison, as with airports, there’s nothing to be done except submit. 

I considered how much more degrading it must be for the prisoners. Of course, the TSA and prison guards have an unpleasant and important job to do, and are just as deserving of my compassion. More so, considering that unlike TSA and corrections officers, the inmates owe their circumstances to criminal conduct. Yet, my sympathies were more with the convicted felons than the guards trying to make a living. 

I imagine that’s because it’s easier for me to empathize with the inmates. I can’t envision a scenario where I would end up a prison guard, it's not something I would actually choose. But, as for being a prisoner… “there but for the grace of God….”

It seems so easy to go wrong.

When we finally got in, a corrections officer provided each of us with our own personal panic button. If pressed, the guard explained, the prison would go on lock down and send security to our rescue. She also cautioned us not to accidentally sound the alarm. The guard’s admonishment launched us into a state of anxiety, as we imagined the mortification of being the idiot to accidentally put the entire prison in a state of emergency. Or worse, a situation that would justify panic.

Once in, a corrections officer led us across the grounds to meet our charges. On the way, we passed inmates who looked on curiously, said hello, and stepped aside politely to let us pass. My anxiety over the panic button subsided, only to be replaced by a new one -- fear of failure.

What on earth did I have to offer an incarcerated woman studying to be an entrepreneur? Other than a two person law firm, I have never run a business, and have only worked part-time intermittently since having kids. My only experience with criminals was to put them behind bars. 

I never felt so unqualified for a job since I arrived home with my first newborn. Surely, someone trying to start a new life after prison deserved better than me.

The women were seated at desks and looked at us, their mentors, with giddy anticipation. The 13 of us stood before them feeling, and probably looking, a bit dopey. That awkwardness lasted all of 30 seconds.

We were quickly paired up and moved the desks so that each mentor could converse semi-privately with her student. It was a cacophony of talk, lots of girl talk: “oooh, I love your pants!” … “I know you were mine as soon as you walked in the room” … “cute haircut” …

Whitney, a LEAP teacher, who at 8 month’s pregnant managed to be adorable, sweet, competent and tough all at the same time, made a futile effort to quiet us. We were too busy getting to know each other in our allotted 30 minutes to heed her pleas to lower our voices. Because the inmates do not have access to the internet, they were to explain their business plan and be prepared with a list of questions for their mentors to research for them. While there was business talk, the women mostly seemed to bask in having a special someone genuinely interested in their life. 

I get to mentor “Beth,” 37, who plans to open a hair salon. Beth is already licensed to cut hair and has over 15 years of experience. She is also good with make-up and would like to combine beauty services. She asked me to look into the licensing requirements for doing permanent make-up.

Beth is personable and beautiful. Just like the Piper character on Orange is the New Black. Except, not quite. 

Unlike Piper, Beth is not in prison for just one misdeed. She messed up many times over a period of many years. In the process she disappointed and inflicted pain on many people.  

I do not claim to have learned everything about Beth in 30 minutes. 

However, I do know a few things about her. I know Beth regrets what she did and genuinely wants to lead a productive, good life when she gets out. I also know that Beth is not a lost cause, and that  she is terrified of how she will get by post-prison. It will be difficult but, with help, she can do it. 

Talking to the other mentors afterward, they expressed similar sentiments about their students. The nervousness that filled the air as we walked in, was replaced by a collective sense of hope and purpose. 

On the way out, I passed the small sign where I took that selfie months ago. The prison and its inmates no longer seemed exotic or a threat. The prison was just a hard, sad place. As for the inmates, they were just people who made mistakes and need help — not so different from where virtually every person I know has been at some point.

Overall, my visit to the Miami Dade Correctional Institute was a positive one. It was interesting and I left feeling hopeful and like maybe I can make a small difference. I have only only regret. It's that we were not allowed to bring in our smart phones. 

I sure would have liked to have gotten a selfie from the inside.