Brick by Brick: Prisoners Use Writing to Find Freedom
Judith McDaniel is an educator and lawyer with experience in complaint processes and investigative procedures. She has taught and written about sexual discrimination and harassment, gender studies, human rights activism, women and the law, and women in Western culture. Learn more about her current projects at www.educationtrainingsolutions.com. Here she reviews Breaking Out of Prison: A Guide to Consciousness, Compassion, and Freedom by Bernice Mennis (iUniverse, 2008)
One in 31 US adults is on probation, in prison, or on parole, according to a 2009 study from the Pew Center. The US currently has the highest inmate population in the world. The US Department of Justice reported in February 2009 that by 2007, 2.3 million adults were in prison in the US and another 4 million were under some other form of "correctional control." Our "correctional controls" cost $68 billion per year, 90% of which goes to prisons, and there is no apparent change in recidivism rates in spite of a nearly 300% increase in such spending over the past two decades.
By contrast, education for prisoners -- and especially post-secondary education -- has been shown by a large body of research to dramatically reduce recidivism. These programs took a heavy hit when, in 1994, the federal government eliminated Pell grants for incarcerated students. Riding a reactionary wave of fear and demonization, many state governors and legislatures followed suit and ended educational programming in their correctional facilities. Fortunately, some states are beginning to reverse this trend and bring college-level education to prisoners.
Bernice Mennis's book is about the years she taught college-level writing in a men's maximum security prison in upstate New York. "Why would anyone voluntarily go into a prison?" she asks. I can answer that question because for many years I taught in the same prison and Bernice Mennis and I would go through those gates together. My experience behind those bars included some of the most stimulating and interesting teaching I have ever done.
The center of this book is a series of assignments Mennis used in the prison and the responses she received. All are personal--and they are all political. Redefining a word helps students to redefine their worlds. Writing about compassion, one student expands his own understanding as well as his teacher's: "Compassion comes from the consciousness of one's own ability to do malevolent acts." Mennis does not let her student stop here. Dig, explore, go further -- these are her mantras. For all of us, she insists, "there is an incredible freedom and power when we begin to question, to break out of a prison constructed by another, to dismantle piece by painful piece, brick by brick, their imprisoning words and concepts, rebuilding a word or a world based on our continually evolving experience, knowledge and reflection."
Rattling the Brain
After defining the concept of peace for himself, one student found that the process of writing was "very unsettling because I never thought about putting something so abstract on paper Ms. Mennis has made me rattle my brain to see what is going to come out." We can see Ms. Mennis laughing as she appreciates the image that incorporates the struggle and the result. "Rattling the brain" is a good description of the process she has used as a teacher.
Another student followed a prompt during an in-class writing assignment and surprised himself by making a permanent (i.e., written) record of something he did not want to remember or record -- and yet
"... [it] seemed to take a form of control over me and that is a little frightening. I guess I should be careful with it I'm really trying to expand on my uses of writing. It's quite possible that it could be the outlet I've always had but never used. I must say that writing is a lot safer and much more productive than doing drugs."
Journal-writing is more familiar as a tool of self-discovery today than it was when Mennis started teaching -- and yet, it is a tool with different dimensions when it is used in a prison where prisoners have no right to privacy. "Cells are totally open on one side At any minute a Correctional Officer can enter their cell, search everything, take away any books and papers, confiscate their journal." What does it mean for a teacher to tell students in these circumstances that a journal is "theirs"? It is a requirement for the course that each student keep a journal, and they can invoke privacy with regard to what she sees, but in the background there is always the specter of a cell search. This may create, she muses, something like Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" in order to enter an imaginative setting. In prison there is no privacy, but writing in a journal that is "private" allows a pretense that can become the reality. Even if the privacy is an illusion, the "acting as if" allows these students to enter the process of self discovery and self knowing.
It is a brave and necessary act, the goal of which is discovery of self and its relationship to the world. As one student writes: "As I'm coming to understand, writing for me is a form of release, an escape from all the pain, hurt and deprivation that is the lord and master of the existence which I'm currently living. I used to think of writing as a form of communication between people, but now I view it as that and, also, my way of really releasing my inner self, a safety valve between myself and my sanity."
One of the ground rules Mennis repeats often in her classes is that "confusion and contradictions are not a ëproblem' but are, in fact, essential to the journey of understanding." Why am I violent? asks one student. He has written about childhood socialization, the behavior children learn from their environments that is inculcated so completely that "it is accepted in this type of environment as ënormal,' and so there isn't any thought of doing wrong or any remorse felt when they finally do commit a violent act As far back as I can remember it's always been around me. Like myself, my home, my school, and the mole on my thigh; it was just there. Whether violence was right or wrong, it never crossed my mind. As I got older violence became a tool. When cunning and intimidation didn't work, I would go into my tool belt and pull out some violence. I was taught at an early age that force only respects greater force and I learned how much and when to use it to achieve my goals."
Holding the behavior and the learning process up to the light as he writes about it takes the "normal" away from the norm.
Using the Tools We Have
Definition, comparison, and analysis are layers of understanding that many teachers use in writing classes. But not many of us use them to break out of the illusions and conscious thoughts that entrap, to find a lens that enlarges our view of the world, of the space we occupy, whether it is a six-foot-square prison cell, an office in a business, or our home. We are surrounded by institutions, just as prisoners are surrounded by bars and walls. In this world, nurturing the spirit is a full-time job for each of us.
In the conclusion of this moving journey through many lives, Mennis shows us her process in contacting each of the prisoners who were her students to ask for permission to use their work. Following her own guidelines for exploring beneath the surface, Mennis begins with free writing so that she can understand her own motivation. She discovers she wants "them to know their words made a difference in my life, both when I taught them and now, that their honest and deep words have effect... that they are worthy -- despite what the environment of prison may make them feel."
Some had survived, and wrote back. Some were gone, dead or untraceable. This book is a record of them all, of a process they shared with a teacher, and through her with us. One of Mennis's students signed his letter, "Still your student." She felt that she should end her letter to him with "Still your teacher and still your student."
The program that brought Mennis into the prisons ended when the Republican Governor of New York decided that prison was only about punishment, not rehabilitation. This is a familiar mindset. I live in Arizona now, where the legislature is proud that it spends more money on prisons than on education, and where the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in the US" patrols the streets of our capital city and brags about arresting "illegals"-- many of whom, it turns out, are Mexican American or Native American citizens, being subjected to harassment and humiliation by a bigoted local law enforcement system which violates rather than upholds the laws of our society. Prisons, Mennis writes, "are created to break the spirit of the inmate, not just to punish for a crime done... to make amends... but to make him/her feel dehumanized, cast out of the human community."
Breaking Out of Prison is a book about prisons and prisoners,
but even more, it is a record of the common humanity shared by
those who are in prisons constructed of concrete and steel and
those in prisons constructed by habits of mind, by social etiquettes,
by the expectations of others. Mennis has always believed, as
she demonstrates so vividly, that writing is a key that unlocks
the mind -- and transcends the walls.