Seeing Beyond Orange: My Weekend In Jail (Part I of II)

I spent this past weekend in the San Francisco County Jail. No, it’s not what you think. Wait, what did you think? :-)

I’ve been interested in the Alternatives to Violent Project (AVP) for about two years now. Thanks to my friend Ben, who is a trained AVP facilitator, I was part of a small team of participants attending a workshop focused on nonviolent communication (NVC) on June 13 and 14.  This post will cover some of my experiences from the first day.

 

Day 1

We reported to the jail at about 7.45 a.m., which meant a 5.45 a.m. start for me. We were armed with warm layers of clothes, meals, snacks, water, and curiosity. Everything else, including cell phones and other valuables, which qualifies as “contraband,” was not allowed. After surrendering our IDs and receiving visitor passes, we walked past the visitor booths (the kind you see in the movies, with tiny cubicles and phones) through the first of a series of doors.

It was my first time inside a jail, period. I had no idea what to expect.

At first, it felt a little surreal. And sterile. The corridors were long, wider than a hospital’s, and empty. We walked to the cafeteria to put our food in the guest fridge, and then walked to the “pod” where we were going to spend the next twelve hours. A pod is a section in the jail that houses about fifty inmates. It’s designed with a curvature, apparently based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which allows all cells to be visible to the jail staff.

 

A pod in the SF County Jail. Note the glass doors, bunk beds, and orange uniforms.

A pod in the SF County Jail. Note the glass doors, bunk beds, and orange uniforms. Photo courtesy of CBS.

 

Walking into the pod was definitely uncomfortable for me. I’d never seen so much orange. I could see into every cell, and it felt like I was invading a privacy that inmates didn’t have. This thing I found most disturbing was when an inmate stood in front of the locked glass door to their cell and looked outside. It reminded me of zoos. I looked away. We walked into the “gym,” which consisted of a basketball rim in a high-ceiling concrete room with too much ventilation. It was breezy and chilly.

We arranged chairs in a circle, put up posters of NVC guidelines and workshop agreements, and then sat down.

The inmates participating in AVP were released from their cells began to file in. They wore orange t-shirts, sweaters, pants, socks and shoes, except a few guys who wore white shoes. Our pod consisted of mainly African-American, Latino, and other minority races.

We started off with an introduction game where we had to come up with an adjective and gesture to go with our name. I was Mellow Marilyn (making wave-like motions that some thought was hula) and Ben became Building Ben. Happily, this game was tremendously helpful for remembering all twenty-seven names in the group. And it broke the ice.

Sitting next to different inmates during the first half of the day, I noticed that they were hyper vigilant. They noticed EVERYTHING. One example that really struck me was when an inmate saw a mosquito on my black jacket sleeve and came over from about three feet away to gently flick it away. I hadn’t even noticed it! I was super grateful because I am allergic to mosquito bites.

After lunch, we did an exercise where we silently wrote down how we react when we are angry and fearful, and taped our answers to the front of our bodies. We then walked around reading each other’s responses. When we later discussed this exercise, a realization jumped into my mind: Silence is Vulnerability’s ally.

We had shared our deepest vulnerabilities with each other nonverbally. Somehow, the silence equalized us and helped us respect one another; we had also begun to trust each other.

We followed this exercise with body sculptures. We were each given a statement, first negative, such as “I don’t exist” or “I can’t succeed” and asked to individually express this, using our body as a sculpture. The resulting sculptures were all stationary, slumped, and sad. Then we flipped the statements into positive ones: “I do exist!” and “I can succeed!” These expressions transcended sculpture and turned into dances, victory laps, fist bumps, and hugs.

The oldest inmate in the group, Lightning Logan* pointed out during our debrief of this exercise that human emotion, and its expression, is universal. We all behaved in similar ways regardless of our race, gender, age or other differences. A second insight started buzzing in my brain: When we examine ourselves through the lens of emotion, we see we are more alike than different.

For one exercise, we were asked to talk about an incident that led to violence. I shared that my very first boyfriend had pulled a knife on me once. I had wanted to end the relationship because I was feeling very restricted by his jealousy and possessiveness. He threatened to kill me, and himself. I was 18. The inmates in my group expressed their surprise at hearing this. We proceeded to talk about the importance of valuing ourselves enough to make better choices. One of them, Alternative Adam,* turned to me, smiled, and said reassuringly, “Not all men are like that.”

Towards the end of the day, through our discussions, it became clear that every inmate was here because of decisions he had made (e.g. to get into that gang car, or to hit that person, or to sell those drugs), and in many cases, due to anger that he had not been able to control. What ran much deeper, and what Building Ben and I talked about that evening but were much too tired to discuss fully, was our privilege, versus the inmates’ volatile social and physical environment, the unfair society that they were born into, and the way incentives were aligned to encourage quick riches and short cuts; these situations had almost set them up to fail and end up in this system of punishment. Can you realistically be expected to do something different while violence is the only option you know?

To me, AVP felt like a lighthouse in the storm of that punishment, illuminating previously unknown and unseen pathways to achieving goals, to shedding old role models and adopting new ones, to creating a future that does not need to be influenced by the past. It’s not easy, but for those who are ready for change, we have the power to make it happen. Together, sharing our pain, anger, and fear, and opening ourselves to something better, many new outcomes and futures become possible. I saw that some inmates were beginning to see the light, and that gave me a warmth that I recognized as hope.

By 11pm on Saturday, in my jammies on Building Ben’s couch, I was beyond exhausted. Three hours of sleep the night before, and twelve hours of workshopping had taken its toll. I passed out and got six precious hours of deep sleep, waking the next morning feeling like a new person. It was time for Day 2.

 

*Names (except Ben’s and mine) have been altered to respect the privacy of inmates, participants and facilitators but convey the flavor of how the naming exercise helped us bond.

Stay tuned for Part II next week Monday, June 22, in which I talk about how we delved much deeper into our fear and anger, honored each other’s vulnerabilities, acknowledged each other’s accomplishments, and celebrated our intense two-day journey.

If you are interested in serving in the SF County Jail through AVP, contact Ben Glass by email (ben@talkwise.com) or phone (415-336-4555). For general information about AVP, go to www.AVPCalifornia.org.

 

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