About a month ago I decided to put into motion something that I have wanted to do for a long time: becoming a volunteer in the prison system. Years I have been thinking about this; in New York, I mapped the subway-bus-walking route to Rikers Island several times, each time hoping that Google Maps would read something less than “2.45 hrs.” as the length of the trip (one-way). Relocating to Durham put me closer (about .8 of an hour) away from the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (pictured above), located near downtown Raleigh.
Why volunteer in the prisons? Because I find the American prison system absolutely reprehensible, and it shames me to live in a country that so easily and unapologetically locks up, marginalizes, oppresses, and fears such a huge group of persons. I want to make sure that someone is treating them like the living, breathing individuals they are. Might as well be me.
And what would I do with prisoners that could be beneficial to them? Teach them Pilates! There’s been evidence that yoga in the prisons has been extremely beneficial to inmates, and while Pilates has a different focus and benefits than yoga does, it is a disciplined and self-focused means of acquainting yourself with your body. Meanwhile you get to breathe, stretch, strengthen, and spend time lying down on the floor (one of my favorite activities).
So I’ve emailed with administration about teaching Pilates several times, and they seem into the idea of a Pilates teacher working with the inmates. Each time I talk to someone who works there, she reminds me to bring only “keys and and ID” into the volunteer orientation training. I don’t forget, and on Saturday morning when I leave my car in the parking lot, walking towards the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women with all the other volunteers-to-be, I carry only my keys and ID. We fill out forms, get handed a packet entitled “Volunteer Orientation Training - August 28 2010” and a little blue booklet, the “Volunteers Make a Difference Handbook”. Most of the people there are older than I, a diverse mix of white and black, and probably 85% female. Many are signed up with religious groups - Protestant, Jesuit, Latter-Day Saints, Seventh Day Adventists, even a Muslim group. The kind older woman I sit next to is black, not with a group, and has volunteered at NCCIW before, but several years ago, and from what I gather, has had at least one of her children go to prison. She’s a very very nice woman, funny and understated, and sitting next to her, I begin to relax.
And I begin to learn. I learn that hating the prison system is not hating the people who work for the prison system. The people who work there, in fact, the presenters of the training, are not power-tripping nazis. They are a compassionate and intelligent bunch, and their jobs require a lot of them. I learn that the people running the prisons hope and want that their inmates leave in better shape than the shape they arrived in, and many programs already exist to make this happen. This hope is all around me, it is the reason we are there at all. I also learn that the inmates will see my weaknesses and dive-bomb, asking me overtly and covertly for money, sex, and attention. I learn that I’m there to do a job, not make friends. I learn how all sex-within-prisons is considered rape, how the Prisons Rape Elimination Act of 2003 criminalizes all forms and types of sex- which I find both sad and, perhaps, unavoidable. I learn about the Prisons Rape Elimination Act of 2003 about 500 times- there’s even a video in which two separate inmates, their faces shadowed, discuss the experience of being raped within prison. I am surprised at all the time we spend on prison rape, but I think it’s better that than spending no time at all on it.
There are also cookies, many “uh-huhs” emitted from the woman next to me, and several opportunities to bond and laugh as we go over, for the 501st time, why to never have sex with an inmate.
The orientation speakers, all employees of the NCCIW, seem to be communicating the same lesson- how to hope for the best and expect the worst from the experience, the inmates, the prison. In the next few weeks until I begin volunteering, I will be thinking about this most of all - balancing an optimistic and joyful attitude with complete pragmatism and groundedness.
And you know what’s good for balance? Pilates.