Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

Unlearning Long Divisions: Other People’s Eyes

Recently, I talked to two groups in St. Louis, Missouri about my prison students. At one of them, I was honored to follow and be connected in an introduction to Valerie Elverton-Dixon, who had talked to this same church shortly before. Her website Just Peace Theory says that she studies, and her website and Facebook pages are filled with her long and deep thoughts about war, peace, solving conflict, forgiveness, women’s issues, LGBT issues and reflections on parts of our history like the Civil Rights Movement. Not all of us have the time, the inclination, or the passion for the kind of study she does, and we badly need people who study, who think deeply and clearly about the world we live in.

Dr. Dixon is an African-American woman, and her perception of the world is different than mine, because her experiences as a black woman are so radically different. For instance, in her piece in her blog in Tikkun Daily about the movie “Selma,” she writes about the humiliation African-Americans had to endure as they were asked to recite the preamble to the Constitution or needing to know how many state judges there were and who they were, the poll taxes they needed to pay and needing a character reference from a registered voter in order to vote. If a landlord or employer objected to someone’s attempt to vote, a person could lose their job, their house or both. She reminds us of the erosion of voting rights today, about how much has changed and how much stays the same. She goes on to say,

“White voters did not have to face such impediments because of a grandfather clause in the law that exempted anyone who was a descendant of a person who had the right to vote before 1866 from poll tax and property requirements.”

I have always tried to vote in every election, but I sometimes take it for granted, forgetting just how difficult it still is for so many people. Our perceptions of the world are shaped by our own unique experiences. As a white person with a lifetime of privilege, I need to see and understand the life truths that black people know from their lives. There is much I do not understand. I picked up a double-sided sheet called: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack at the wonderful church where I spoke. I’ve seen this list before but need to be reminded of situations I take for granted every day. Peggy McIntosh compiled it in 1988. A few of the effects of white privilege she cites that hit home for me are:

  • If I want to move, I can be sure of renting or buying a home in an area I can afford and in an area I want to live.
  • I can go shopping alone without fearing I will be followed or harassed.
  • If I’m pulled over by the police or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being labeled “a credit to my race.”
  • I can be be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I can travel alone almost anywhere without expecting embarrassment or hostility in the people I have to deal with.
  • I can choose any public accommodation anywhere without the fear of being excluded or mistreated by the people who are serving those places.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without feeling like a cultural outsider.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue around, or if I say that race is not involved, I can be reasonably sure my race will lend more credibility than a person of color will have.
  • I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social. [1].

Though I live in a university town with lots of ethnic diversity, I still have to make an effort to understand a black person’s experience and often very different viewpoints. Reading people like Valerie Dixon helps enlarge my perspectives and understandings.

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Unlearning Long Divisions: Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

When Mr. Hoffer walked in on his first day of Language Arts, he reminded me of a linebacker on a football team: tall, muscular, and big.

Adult students who return to school after dropping out have much to teach us about how people learn and what gets in their way–Mr. Hoffer was no different in that regard. At the beginning of a language arts class, I talked to each of my students individually. One particular semester, there were no white students in my language art classroom—the group was evenly split between Hispanic men needing help with English as a Second Language (ESL) and African-American men. These students had two identifying facts in common: all were labeled felons and they were all drop-outs, having left school at differing points. For almost all new students, their first job was to recover their confidence and not fall back into thinking they could not succeed. Almost everyone who returns to an adult education high school classroom needs to work on language skills and the purpose of the class was to address reading and writing.

In addition to being a man of large presence, Mr. Hoffer’s smile was big too. He wore that smile as he headed for the back corner of the room on the first day of class. I learned to pay attention to students who wanted to sit in the farthest corner and in the back row. Often this signaled that they were more nervous about their ability than those who sat in the front of the room.

Mr. Hoffer saw me coming toward him when it was his turn to talk to me and jumped up to find me a more comfortable chair. I thanked him for helping the man who was sitting next to him.

“How do you feel about being back in school?” I asked.

His face clouded and he said in a low voice, “Mrs. Wenzel, I was always in special ed.”

I was surprised.

A few weeks passed as I watched him carefully, noticing that he was always friendly, easy-going, and unflappable. If he couldn’t understand a lesson, he stuck with it until he did, often wanting to figure it out himself. He was reliable, always getting his work done on time, and focused and steady as he worked. He continued to be helpful to other students. People in the office reported that he had offered to help with anything they needed, so he was spending time doing routine office work in his spare time. As I watched him, I kept coming up with the word competent. I saw no special needs. When mid-term evaluations came around, I used the word competent, spelling out his strong skills as a student. He told me no one had ever told him that before. His test scores had improved by the end of the semester, giving him the confidence to take higher level classes. He handled those with ease.

As we prepared for graduation, he told me that his mother was coming from another state to attend, and how excited they both were. His smile spread wide across his face as he accepted his diploma and stood for the photograph with the superintendent. During the reception following the ceremony, I found his mother and told her how much we had enjoyed her son and how helpful he had been to other students–and to the program. Her eyes filled with tears as she said, “I never thought I would see this day. He had such a horrible time in school.”

It is easy to pay attention to labels as a teacher. I have done that myself and not expected enough from my students. I wonder how the label of special ed that followed him from teacher to teacher and year to year—and the fact that he was an African-American growing up in a poor neighborhood—affected what kind of expectations his teachers had for him. I wonder about labels, how they get internalized, damage confidence, and affect student achievement. Somehow as an adult in his 20’s, Mr. Hoffer was able to overcome the negative labels enough to succeed in school. But if there was a direct link between his experience as a student when he was growing up and the fact that he committed a crime, as there often is, finding success in a prison classroom was a high price to pay.