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Thoughts on teaching in prison on World Day of Social Justice

On an overcast day in January 2013, with no criminal justice background and no real teaching experience, I entered the stark grounds of New Jersey’s only maximum-security women’s prison to co-teach a course on memoir writing. The youngest in a classroom of thirteen women, many of whom were serving life or double-life sentences, plus my two mentors and co-teachers, Courtney Polidori and Michele Tarter, my mind began spinning with concern and doubt. How could I pull this off? How could we bring these women, some of whom had been hardened, seemingly for life, by the “punishment industry,”to trust us enough to help them find their voices as empowered writers? The only answer was for me—myself—to trust. To trust in the transitive power of words, in the aching souls yearning for solace, in the mad, wide world that brought me here with a willingness to try.

Some context: Dr. Tarter had begun “Woman is the Word,” the course at the prison, over a decade before I enrolled in her capstone literature seminar on autobiography as a junior at The College of New Jersey. Meaning that some of the “wisewomen” (our students, whom we never refer to as “inmates”) she taught nearly fifteen years ago were still incarcerated, many anxiously waiting for her return. Why? Because she changes lives. I carry her words with me to this day, using her strength and the strength of our students to keep my mind open to whomever I may meet: “If you walk from a state of love, and not a state of fear, all these walls around you will be shattered.”

From left: Zimbler, Tarter, artist Russell Craig, and Polidori at Rutgers' "Marking Time" Conference, 2014
From left: Zimbler, Tarter, artist Russell Craig, and Polidori at Rutgers’ “Marking Time” Conference, 2014

The course is based off the pedagogy of powerful women across time and place, particularly scholars and activists Audre Lorde and bell hooks. As we spent months preparing our syllabus and course materials from scratch, Lorde’s words, from a 1977 speech to the MLA, kept ringing in my ears: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?… I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?”

The first day we toured the facility, as soon as we left the minimum-security grounds and took the barren, sobering walk to “max,” I began to realize why Michele had refused to teach anywhere but in maximum-security.

The stately yet broken-down buildings along the path to “max” are eerily reminiscent of a southern plantation rather than a place of rebirth. This, along with other intrusive sensory effects—silence is no friend, and the smells and sights bring comparable insanity—and even the spellbinding interactions we had with our students, are all impossible to describe properly.

When you leave the facility, when you re-don your underwire bra and collect your cell phone and car keys and feel your tires crunching down Freedom Road, there is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness you still carry with you. The inability to record those moments, to even mention any names and wave them in the faces of the otherwise careless and say “look! look at the beauty of human potential through our eyes!” can be the cement block in the way of real social change. In The New Jim Crow, scholar Michelle Alexander writes that today, while women are a small portion of incarcerated Americans, they represent “the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.” We leave the facility understanding the power of our freedom, and the burning fire beneath it — our responsibility to act on it.

Zimbler speaking at the "Read-Out" event of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Princeton 2013
Zimbler speaking at the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow’s “Read-Out,” Princeton.

The purpose of memoir-writing is not to excuse oneself from past actions, but to reflect on those actions with strength and use them to understand the present and change the future. To do so, one must be ready to go to those dark places. A writer myself, I never mustered the strength to write a full autobiography, but we had students who wrote hundred-page books with appendices of letters, poetry, lyrics, and confessions. Our “wisewomen” inspired me to write more than I could ever fit into one lifetime, but they also encouraged me to write with them and challenged me to share my own work with them.

This wasn’t a typical classroom dynamic — we were all students of one another. The writing our students produced was far more gripping, grittier, and moving than anything I had seen in an undergraduate writing workshop. But the system has been trying to define these women their whole lives, so how can it expect change without giving them a voice to prove they can?

Dropping my creative writing minor in favor of true active learning was not a difficult decision: complete a writing workshop with words I’d already written and wait nervously for other students’ nervous feedback, or advocate the written word in a powerfully raw and innovative classroom experience? Wasn’t the prison the exact place to engage with the human condition? To discover the writers’ purpose, audience, and potential? Working through the stories these women kept inside and helping them bring their struggles and victories to light would influence my life, and every life in that classroom, in ways we could never imagine. More importantly, it would contribute to a much-needed sense of humanity in a place devoid even of proper health and mental care.

Since our “Woman is the Word” workshop, Courtney and Michele have continued teaching courses at the prison and we have presented scholarship throughout the country on the profound experiences we had with our students — at various academic conventions, meetings with local Quaker Friends, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, and, most recently, Rutgers University’s “Marking Time” conference, where we met and shared our writing with exceptionally talented artists inspired by their former incarcerations. After fifteen years of volunteering in the prison, Michele is finally on sabbatical this year, but not to rest — to write the book.

“As I have found over the years of volunteering in the prison,” Michele told me, “these women hold so much insight and lived experience about our culture’s social injustices and gender inequities.” Life Sentences: Writing with Wisewomen behind Bars, the tentative title for the book Michele hopes to complete by this summer, will be a testament not only to the importance of education in the prison but to the wisdom of these women who have been locked up and, as such, silenced.

Cover of chapbook created for students by Samantha Zimbler.
Cover of chapbook created for students by Samantha Zimbler.

A few months back, Courtney sent me a voicemail after returning from the first NJ prison graduation ceremony rewarding students with community college associate’s degrees. Many of our workshop participants received their degrees that day.

Although it was just her recorded voice speaking to me, I shared something with her at that moment, something that can’t be shared with those who have no experience with the prison system. But that didn’t make it unreal — some of the students who earned their degrees that day included women we saw evolve from introverted, broken people to lively, philosophical artists.

If this is not astounding evidence of human potential among those many deem unfit for society, then we have nothing to fight for. But these women don’t need teachers to give them hope or humanity; it is already there. Our job is to nourish these bonds, and to show the world that the “madness” often associated with the inmate does not indicate an inability to relate to others or to reality. It is a misnomer used to intimidate the entitled from being “contaminated” by people they see as damaged, which disables us from seeing truth and demanding justice.

How should you celebrate World Day of Social Justice this year?

  • Consider starting a prison course of your own, using our freely downloadable portfolio of teaching materials.
  • Consider donating to a maximum-security prison complex’s library.
  • Read, share, and find power in the stories of the oppressed.
  • Don’t let your silences take advantage of your life. Remember our classroom mantra: freedom is a not a state of bars — it’s a state of mind.

You can also learn more about the effects of mass incarceration on those behind and beyond bars, their families, and society at large with the below readings from Oxford Handbooks Online:

Image Credit: “Old Women’s Prison: Chiang Mai, Thailand 2014.” Photo by drburtoni. CC by NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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