Today’s sessions provided a unique opportunity for us as private citizens, or as Sneha put it, “civil society” to interact with a community of society who we usually learn about through pop-culture, stereotypes and the media. We were afforded a privileged opportunity of interacting with them directly, particularly in the afternoon — as humans, without other people speaking for or about them. Tangentially, this made it somewhat ironic that their presentation to us began by describing themselves and their peers as statistics. Up until now this was the only interaction I had had with prisoners – they were numbers on a page, as part of a system which I saw as a vicious cycle. So I guess in a very idiosyncratic way we were learning about statistics, from human beings who represented the statistics – we saw prisoners both as the numbers on the board and as their individual stories. We were seeing them from behind the Lethal Electric Fence and from the inside.
I’ve never had any involvement in a 12-step program except for having friends who have gone through them. But from my experience today I was really impressed by the positive affirmation and camaraderie displayed by the participating inmates. However, I also think it is worth noting that we were viewing the process as outsiders who swooped in at the end of what would have been a long and arduous process on steps to recovery, as well as the work of collecting data. It was also a reminder of how simple activities of self-reflection can have profound impacts. It was interesting to see the reactions of the inmates towards the numbers and how they could relate their own experiences to the statistics on the board.
In our group the facilitator and mentor did a great job including us in the discussions and debates about the activity. The one counsellor asked us all to describe the criminal justice system’s in our own country, which proved to be a really thought provoking process, to compare what situation some of the inmates would be in in other countries. I also think it was a positive experience for people who are confined to interacting with a certain social group, to be exposed to a group with such diverse backgrounds, who are all engaged with each other. Common ground in practice.
I really enjoyed speaking with Julie about whether the gangs design prisons. I definitely found the amount of influence the gang-members had over their jailers to be surprising. The fact that they dictated who shared cells with who, and many other dynamics in the facility seemed counter intuitive to me. As an outsider it seemed like the jailers should have absolute control over the prisoners in a facility of this severity. Which requires us to ask the question: are jails disrupting gangs or enabling them?