Prison Stories: Fears and The Prison Fence

Recently, I experienced a situation when, without any real information, I hit the panic button and allowed my imagination to ruin a whole day. I fussed and worried for hours without having a clue what was really going on. My fears are almost all irrational old habits, and I’m at my worst when I’m afraid, especially when I allow panic to slide in. I go into a very dark place, filled with misinformation and my over-active imagination about worst-case scenarios. In some cases, I assume the worst about other people. I can feel paralyzed and fail to take appropriate actions—like asking questions or stepping back enough to realize that I don’t have all the necessary information. If I look carefully at the situations I’m afraid of, I’m realizing that I almost always have a choice about how I react. I need some better habits of going beyond a stereotype, a prejudice or the reliance on just one side of a story.

“Aren’t you afraid?” was the most common question I heard in the many years I taught in a prison classroom. People were surprised when I said that in twenty-five years, I was never afraid of an inmate. It was the institutional restrictions that made me nervous and sometimes fearful. I didn’t want anyone to be suspicious or ever on the wrong side of the many rules. I had to protect my students, my reputation and my program, so I was always wary. I realize now that I could have been more relaxed and relied on people knowing me for many years. I had choices there too.

As I continue to talk to people about prisons, mass incarceration, prison education and my wonderful students, I keep coming back to the problem of our fears. I also return to “The Danger of a Single Story,” in the last blog I wrote. People inside the prison fence are most often reduced to just one fact: they’ve committed a crime. Even that isn’t always true—there are people in prison who are innocent. The fence is powerful and says that they are too dangerous to be among the rest of us. The idea is fed by labels such as thugs, predators and super-predators, outlaws, crooks and convicts. So, we can more easily jump to the conclusion that only bad people live inside. This simply isn’t true. No one is that simple. No one should be defined by just one action, just one mistake. Being invisible behind a prison fence makes it harder to see whole human beings.

The political and cultural divisions in this country are deep and wide, much of it due to the fears people feel. It is disturbing to hear new cries of “Law and Order!” Sometimes it feels like fear is a persistent fog that covers up the whole of a story. Inciting fear works as a powerful and successful tool to politically manipulate people. The presence of so many guns and the resistance to any kind of gun control measures speaks of widespread and potent panic. Our lack of knowledge about each other’s economic realities and painful histories doesn’t help. Loud voices blast fears—about immigrants from Mexico who “pore across our borders,” as Trump states, Muslims who commit acts of terror, and black men who are dangerous. Responsible citizenship is fact-checking! There has to be a better way to live together than to be so afraid of each other. Stepping back to find more information and asking good questions would quell some of the fear. Investigating and learning about the insidious and persistent xenophobia and racism that have always been present in this country would help too.

The problem is: Fears are potent, contagious and dangerous. My black students talked about what it felt like to see people avert their eyes or cross the street to get away from them. “It’s like people think we are all out to hurt someone,” they said. These students worried about their children, especially their sons. Our fears of black men leads to their death in some cases. In many other cases, it leads to racial profiling, arrests, imprisonments and longer sentences than those for white people arrested for the same crime. I don’t ever feel targeted, but I need to try and understand what people experience and suffer. I need to speak up—people suffer greatly from other people’s fears. We have Mexican children hearing, “Build a wall!” Muslim children are bullied.

There are other answers than to be struck numb and dumb with alarm and dread. With more than a singular response to fear, we could create fresh solutions like the police in Wichita, Kansas, who invited protestors from Black Lives Matter to a “First Step Cook-out,” where the police answered questions and they all…danced! After a protest, police fired up the grill for a community cook-out  Last December after the shootings in San Bernardino, the local mosque in my town held an open house. So many townspeople attended that we could barely move inside the building. Baklava and other treats were offered with wide, welcoming  smiles, and the imam told us how immensely grateful he was to experience our support.

We are and always have been a nation built by immigrants and nurtured and improved by our rich diversity of cultures and ideas. We could take the power back from the people with loud voices who cry out how afraid we need to be. A lack of information and knowledge about people who are different is like being behind a prison fence where people lose their power and can’t see clearly—or can’t see at all. We could reach out across great divides with warm hands and open hearts. We could even dance in the streets together! All that would feel so much better than being frozen in fear, panic and terror. Quelling our fears could heal our communities instead of hurting all of us. Instead of sliding down into panic, rage and hate, managing our fears gives us dignity and compassion. Our current political climate cries out for our courage.

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” said Nelson Mandela.

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