the other side of the cage



Last week the women were pretty riled up about a visit they had been subjected to earlier in the day. I use the word ‘subject’ intentionally: for not only was it beyond their control, they were also the subjects of investigation. At least that’s how they described their experience of this, as they do so many other, visits by outside groups. Often they do not realize that a group is coming – they say they weren’t told, but I cannot speak to that. What I can relate is that they felt examined, on display, like odd creatures at the zoo or the freaks at a circus sideshow. There was no verbal interaction with them; no explanation of who the visitors were or why they were invading the minimal privacy afforded 160 women living in close quartered units.

Energy was high in the room and tempers were flaring. I allowed them five minutes to vent before we got down to writing. Since our evening’s writing prompt involved assuming the persona of an animal, several writings brought out the rabid bear’s claws, the snake’s stealthiness, the mama bear’s protectiveness. But their tales of vulnerability, of feeling violated and powerless, struck a deep chord inside. I decided to counter their outrage with my own first experience of being toured through their facility when they were up at Northwest State Correctional Facility. What I wrote was unexpected, to say the least. They actually thanked me after I read my quickly-written words.

I was trapped in a herd of us. Caught like rats on a sinking ship. I couldn’t come up for air. There was nowhere to go but one narrow passageway after another, separated by heavy locked doors. We were bunched together, a kind of group traffic jam that lurched from locked door to locked door. There was nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide; no choice but to move with the crowd. Some of us became restless, resisting the plan. Others moved placidly forward, unseeing. Angry eyes stared us down. Accusing. I was faceless, defenseless. I had no ground to stand on, no justification for this inside mission. I was an unwanted intruder. I should not have been anywhere near this place of little enough privacy. I was shamed, with no way to share my humiliation, no way to leave, no way to make amends to the souls into whose lair I had trespassed. Was this necessary? Was this right? I could only hope to find or create an opportunity to make it up to those behind windows, doors, walls. I could only hope that my being there would serve a healing purpose, might help dignify what could only be a mutual humiliation. – SWB

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