By Cassandra Cronin
After visiting the two prisons, even having reflected for a couple of days, I still don’t know how to feel about the entire experience. I’m not sure my emotions even matter. My takeaways from the visits should not be centered on what made me uncomfortable or angry (even though these emotions helped me formulate my thoughts). It was a privilege to see what many only read about or see on television—the ordinary person can’t walk into a prison and demand a tour. The hours we spent learning about the inner workings of the prisons, as well as listening to the perspectives of those who guard one of America’s most controversial institutions, was an incredible experience.
I didn’t enter the prison with any particular expectations, but a lot of what I observed did not match what is portrayed on television. The whole point of TV is to entertain, so it’s not hard to believe that many shows either romanticize or create fantasies surrounding inmates’ lives. For example, Orange is the New Black has received a lot of criticism about how it represents a women’s federal prison. Many disapprove of Piper’s naive character, or the ways in which the show downplays the role racial divides play in prisons. A&E’s Beyond Scared Straight has also received a lot of criticism as many aren’t convinced “scared straight” programs work. Giving money towards deterrence (scared straight programs try to “scare” minors into not wanting to go to prison, so that they’ll stop partaking in bad behavior), diverts funds from programs that actually stop minors from entering the criminal justice system. This includes health, education, and employment programs to family counseling resources.
On another note, a lot of the narrative concerning the inmates during the day, much like on television, focused on their willingness to complete programs to “better” themselves. I also remember hearing the world agency being used without acknowledging the implications behind the word. Determining inmates’ agency in relation to what educational or professional programs they could complete was ignoring the diversity of experiences that can be found in a prison. Inmates make a lot of decisions while serving their time. They can chose to complete classes, join prison gangs, commit acts of violence against others, or keep their head down and serve their sentence. There isn’t one experience that encapsulates what it’s like to be in prison, and there isn’t one narrative that explains the difficulties inmates face.
Past emotions, the improper representation of inmates on television, and debating agency, peacebuilders should focus on ways to improve conditions inside the prisons and alleviate the issues that feed the prison industrial complex (preventative programs, sentencing reform, educational and rehabilitative resources for inmates to name a few).