Only 5% of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.1
One of the many contradictions about teaching is that you have to treat individuals as if they aren’t individuals. To avoid favoritism, to go towards an equal distribution of attention, to ostensibly give everyone a chance at success, the needs of the whole take precedence over those of the individual. Similarly, on my first day of teaching college courses in women’s jail, which was also the first day of the program being offered to women, I figured I would approach the students in women’s jail like I approached the students in men’s jail: same syllabus, readings, writing assignments and expectations. But, while I wanted to treat them the same, it was not the same. They came from a heavily gendered world and were now literally locked into it. I needed a more nuanced feminism.
I truly believe gender is a construction—is something human beings create—but that doesn’t mean gender is less real in the ways it plays out. After all, it’s the gendered, classist, racist and otherwise fool ways of this country that result in a mass incarceration that is unparalleled in human history. And, while feminism does call for some attempt at equality in a complicated and unequal world, I hadn’t really thought my approach through. I was used to teaching in men’s jail, and though I knew the numbers were different—about 90% of the over 2 million people incarcerated (and almost 5 million people on parole or probation) in the U.S. are men—I hadn’t reflected on how the causes are too. As is the case with men, the reasons most women are in jail are inherently connected to their social standing.
So, given my experience as a woman of color in America, as someone who has worked in a range of social service capacities (see my first Printworks article for more details), and as someone who willingly self-educates about this sort of thing, I shouldn’t have been surprised to greet a classroom of visibly downtrodden women. Women whose exterior, by and large, could not hide their interior. They wore their pain.
And I wished I’d dressed differently. I thought I knew how to dress in jail. I joke that I’m going for appropriate but not boring; for some low-key version of art teacher. Of course I was conscious of my status as “girl!” in the men’s jail. But that difference was not particularly linked to my choice of dress. However, in women’s jail my basic makeup and not-so-basic clothing pointed to a kind of divide I hadn’t meant to highlight.
On any given day, out of ten students in a men’s jail class, I would have two quitters. Two men whose emotions were getting in the way of their participation in the class they had signed up for. Maybe it was self-defense—they didn’t complete or comprehend the homework—maybe it was a fight with their celly, an offense from a C.O., bad news from their lawyer, their family didn’t put money on the books, or their girl didn’t call like she said she would… there were plenty of reasons to be upset, and I tried to be understanding. If redirection and a you-got-this-smile didn’t work then, if the schedule allowed, I’d let the guy do his own thing for the day. Or, as was the case with one grown man I’ll never forget, put his head down on the table and pout. That student became an eight-year-old again, right there in front of us all, and I wondered if we were getting a glimpse of when his problems started.
And yes, demographically and daily, many inmates face the same issues. The ways students would “quit” in women’s jail were pretty much the same: writing “kites” (notes) to pass in the hall, talking about whatever drama was taking place on the block that day, spinning out about a loved one’s failure to care enough or about their child’s outburst at school, filling out their commissary list, conveying, in extensive detail, how many distractions—a fight, a shower line, a crazy celly, a C.O. who hated them—had kept them from completing the reading, complaining about work we’d already gone over, insisting that I was too hard of a teacher or that they weren’t smart enough to do the work or that they didn’t understand when we both damn well knew they did. Excuses and realities and what’s the difference really?
But I quickly learned that in women’s jail the numbers flipped. When I treated the women like any other class, out of ten students, I’d have two with me and the other eight would be in some stage of quitting. And, frankly, their resistance was more vocal. More personal. At times their backlash consisted of pointed and cruel reminders of how so many women have learned to defend themselves against the threat of other women. Sure, I’d dealt with such before, by no means is this dynamic limited to jail, but the volume! The intensity of nothing left to lose. The wounds they could not hide, and we could not heal. It was exhausting. It was emotional labor.
Eventually, however, the women started to realize I wasn’t there to hurt them and that whatever bleeding heart had brought me to them was not one without standards, and it required completed work for credit. And so, we all made adjustments.
Though continued access to jail requires a delicate dance with corrections officials, I started to get more forceful in demanding my students be let out of their cell to attend class. We had open conversations about the tenuous relationship of the program to the jail. How I had little power, and I had to be careful. But they saw me advocate for them. And they saw me get angry. I allowed myself to be more personal than I usually am with students. When appropriate, I weaved in details about my life and they listened intently. I made fun of myself. I told them when I got a flat tire and how I was stressed about the money. I told them about my dog, and then they often asked about her. While I admitted my luck, I also detailed my work—how I’d supported myself since I was eighteen. I impressed myself with my transitions between some detail of my life and the day’s assignment then used meta commentary to point out these transitions for them: “Now, how does that connect to the essay you wrote for today?” and to remind them they were my priority. I took more care to point out their strengths—on their work and publically—and contradicted their self-doubts whenever possible. I let them know I cared.
They showed me pictures of their kids. They took more pride in their work. They got excited when lessons started to come together—when they started to see their mistakes before I did. Some started to question and argue with the readings or, much more productively and respectfully now, with me.
Which is not to say it was ever an after-school special movie montage. No. Teaching in women’s jail was a hundred times more depressing than teaching in men’s jail. Most men do not seem like they are incarcerated for being beaten the way so many of the women do. Most days, when class was over I’d try to leave. Go past the guards. Wait for the electronic gates. Return to my car and wonder if anything mattered.
Women entering jails are much more likely to have experienced poverty, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, and/or other forms of victimization often linked to their offending behavior. Justice-involved women are also much more likely to have co-occurring disorders-- in particular, substance abuse problems interlinked with trauma and/or mental illness.2
Probably all of my students had been sexually and mentally abused. Repeatedly. Many had internalized their seeming lack of worth in the world. Daily, I witnessed how a brain will try to protect a body with disassociation. More superficially, but with many negative consequences, most women rapidly put on a dramatic amount of weight in jail because they are no longer on drugs and their metabolisms are wrecked, or because of a lack of exercise, and/or because food is the only option for self-medication and the high-calorie commissary options quickly add up.
Quite possibly, the literal and figurative weight these women carry may keep the college program I teach for, or any program really, from helping with tangible changes in most of their lives. Because, almost always, once you learn about the past and present realities of women who end up in jail, you start to wonder if you, even with your education and luck, would honestly be able to make it out of such circumstances—let alone believe it was possible to do so.
The number of women in prison has been increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men since 1980.3
The number of children under age 18 with a mother in prison more than doubled since 1991.4
But we keep teaching (keep living?) because of moments of exception. And, despite its much maligned formulaic limitations, of all fucking things, one of my favorite days with that first group of women was when I introduced them to the five-paragraph essay.
I teach this essay model because I try to balance pragmatic with holistic; because teaching is never just about the material being covered—but the material being covered is the reason we all are there. It’s the deal. And most of my high-needs students, in and outside of jail, could use some basic tricks (such as thesis statements and topic sentences) to help them get through my class and any subsequent courses. They need to start to thinking about organization and editing. So we start with sentences, move on to paragraphs and then go into essays by using the model (introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion). Before the semester is over, strong students get pretty good at applying these concepts outside of the five-paragraph box while the slower, possibly just more distracted, ones finally, hopefully, start to understand what is meant by a main idea.
The day I walked in to introduce this model, I was late (and what movie teacher is ever late?), and the students were having an animated discussion in which I overheard someone say: gay for the stay and straight at the gate. Though I could guess, I asked them to explain it to me because I knew they liked teaching me, and I was curious to hear their feelings about how sexuality plays out in jail. They explained how some women are “straight”, with husbands/kids/boyfriends, but when they are locked up they make different choices. During this conversation, everyone was paying attention and chiming in, but we were off topic. Then I had an idea. And, because morality can derail the best of intellectual engagement, I remember being scared it would crash and burn.
I redirected. I gave a hyper-promise that what we were about to go over would be a key tool for the rest of the semester—and the rest of their college career—told them to take out their notebooks, then gave a rushed overview of the essay structure before launching into the example essay that we would write together. Next, I went into more detail about the introductory paragraph. How it should start with some sort of “hook” to draw the reader in and make them want to read more. Then I wrote on the board:
Gay for the stay and straight at the gate
And for the next thirty minutes there were no quitters.
They understood the topic, but they were still fairly new to the concept of an overall main idea/argument/thesis. And, yeah, maybe I geeked out a little too far in my own direction, but I’ve noticed that students will often follow their teacher’s excitement. So, after adding a short breakdown of the saying:
is a saying that is common in women’s jails that points out how some women’s sexuality seems to shift when they are incarcerated.
Example thesis statement: The unique experience of women’s jail proves the fluidity of sexuality.
Thankfully, fluidity means what it sounds like it means. Though they all said they’d never heard the word before, they all understood its meaning and saw where we were going. Now class, what are three reasons that support or prove this claim?
- The proximity to other women
- The need for comfort and affection
- The relative distance from family and societal judgment
These would become three body paragraphs that would support the idea that if one’s situation changes so might one’s sexual choices. And yes, it’s more complicated than this (economics and manipulation still surely played their roles), but the main critique of the five-paragraph essay is that it only has so much room in which to maneuver.
What is possible in a confined space? In an exchange defined by its limitations? Some days all I held onto was our attempt at decency, but some days—the good ones—much more seemed possible.
There are a lot of resources in this country. I marvel at skyscrapers and suspension bridges, at highways and runways. There are a lot of brilliant minds that make these feats possible—that make me believe our collective failure to take better care of our wounded and self-medicating, our corrupted who hustled to provide is a failure we have chosen. What if the United States was a society that prided itself not only on how many times a ball gets across a line, but how many lives we can improve? It’ll take more than just money. But, why not mandate that 10% of sports profits go to therapeutic programs offering education and dignified options? Seriously. In many states lottery money funds public programs, so why not take a percentage of the over 60 billion dollars Americans spend annually on tickets and apparel?
And, hey, I like sports. But, like the thesis statement none of the students quit on, sometimes an idea that initially sounds radical makes absolute sense. The sports industry can’t move overseas. It has continued growth—in part because technology related changes in society have left so many people desperate for a sense of community. It’s an industry that will be more than okay. I mean, someone just spent over $100,000 on two tickets to an NBA finals game. Even if you have it, that’s commitment. That’s about wanting to witness something bigger than the self.
Finally, while I didn’t find room to adequately address this in this essay, I want to note that there was one transwoman in one of my other women’s jail classes and that, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly one in six transgender people (16%) (including 21% of transgender women) have been incarcerated at some point in their lives—far higher than the rate for the general population.
Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. And though she’s also paid some sort of rent in Lawrence, Detroit, D.C., Laramie, Havana and the Mexican state of Chiapas, Philadelphia has mostly been home since 2000. Her poetry and prose has been supported by the work of The Leeway Foundation, Hedgebrook, Art Farm, Fancyland, VONA/Voices, Lambda, Make/shift, As Us, Acentos Review, Bedfellows, Solstice, APIARY, Aster(ix), Big Bell and others. She is the founder of Thread Makes Blanket press and teaches at the Community College of Philadelphia.