by by by Jess Bendit

Entering the Rhode Island Prison System

I travel to the Rhode Island prison every week as part of my work with Space in Prisons for the Arts and Creative Expression (SPACE). When I arrive, I must present ID, sign a logbook, pass through a metal detector (if I forgot to change out of my underwire bra, I can’t go in), have my bag searched, wait for various doors to be opened from a control panel, and remain unfailingly courteous throughout. These literal obstacles point to the intentional separation of the inmates from the rest of society.

Further, the people society singles out in this manner share a common trait: they are overwhelmingly and disproportionately non-white. The history of racism in America, from slavery to Jim Crow, has facilitated and perpetuated the fear of the dark-skinned other. It is easy to condemn someone who looks like a criminal, according to the national consciousness. In so doing, we ignore the host of institutional, economic, and social structures that create and perpetuate segregation in this country. The focus turns to crime as a moral choice.

Life in prison bears little resemblance to the daily routines outside the barbed wire. Effectively, a term of incarceration says: “For what you’ve done, we don’t want you here anymore, and we’re going to put you somewhere we don’t have to think about you.” To those on the outside, the people who go to prison disappear.

The men and women at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) have forfeited their freedom; inside the walls, every choice—from when to eat to what kind of undergarment to wear—is circumscribed. They are isolated from children, jobs, and emotional support, and instead gain a community that demands toughness and punishes vulnerability. Post-release, they are expected to re-integrate enough that they will be able to avoid the pitfalls that sent them to prison in the first place. Until then, they are property of the state, their every meal, movement, and medical need paid for with taxpayer money.

I began visiting the ACI in January 2010. Every week when I enter, it feels like a revolutionary act—a transgressing of boundaries, a political statement with humanitarian ramifications. At the same time, my willingness to endure the rigmarole of entering the prison indicates respect for their rules. By traveling to the ACI, I accept the system of isolating offenders from society.

When I enter the classroom, I become acutely aware of the contrast between my clothing, jewelry, and hairstyle, and the total uniformity of everyone else in the room. I am here to lead an arts workshop. SPACE workshops try to make room for creativity within a system designed to stifle expressions of individuality. We read and write poetry and prose, discuss art and humanity, laugh, and share our aspirations and insecurities. There is no guard in the room, but I never feel unsafe. Yet, throughout the workshop, a thought hangs over my head: despite my best efforts to foster a cooperative community of equals, the fact remains that at the end of these two hours, I will leave, and the women will not.

An oft-cited statistic: although the United States has 5% of the world’s population, we hold 25% of its prisoners, a rate of 743 per 100,000 people. This rate is the highest in the world, and about 4 times the international average. Further: one in three African American males born in the US right now will spend some amount of time in a prison.
Nothing in the criminal justice complex explicitly acknowledges race. Yet the two defining properties of the system—the massive scale, and the disproportionate number of black and Latino inmates—point to the existence of institutional racism.

In some ways, the US’s criminal justice policies construct criminality in terms of race. For example, Congress recently lowered the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, so that a person must be caught with 18 grams of powder cocaine to receive a similar sentence as someone caught with 1 gram of crack cocaine. The two substances are essentially the same, although crack is cheaper to produce, and therefore, obtain. However, crack users are primarily black, while powder cocaine users are majority white and Latino. The impact of this policy is that black cocaine users receive drastically longer sentences than white or Latino users.

Racial bias in policing and sentencing, in confluence with the overblown media coverage of crime in America, has created a national inclination to associate blackness with criminality, especially for black males. One example is the “Crack Baby” phenomenon of the 90s, in which black women who used crack while pregnant were offered forced sterilization as an alternative to imprisonment, despite the lack of empirical evidence about the drug’s effects on fetuses. Why don’t white suburban moms who abuse prescription drugs receive the same kind of societal condemnation? Why is being “tough on crime” a prerequisite for any aspiring politician? The answer is fear, and, for most middle and upper class Americans, relative insulation from the kinds of crime that land people in prisons.

I believe that many people we lock up don’t deserve this exile. I do this work, even while recognizing that, in the long run, it is probably the facilitators who benefit more from SPACE than the participants. I think there are better ways than incarceration to respond to those who break laws; drug treatment, counseling, home confinement, and monetary fines are some examples. It does make me nervous to think about a society where criminal behavior is punished more leniently, but I’ve met too many people at the ACI to believe in the power of incarceration as a deterrent.

More than one woman has told me that she appreciates the function of prison as a refuge from the temptation of drugs. One particularly talented SPACE participant, who had developed personal friendships with some of our facilitators, recently recidivated after being out of the prison for a few months. Seeing her in my workshop was a jarring reminder of the limited scope of the program. One week, all three of the women in my workshop revealed that they were sexually abused as children, and had abused drugs and done sex work at some point in their lives. For some, prison is an expected part of their reality; for others, it can be a haven away from the problems of the outside world. Either way, rising incarceration rates have not impacted crime in America, which continues to decline annually.

And yet, I volunteer for the ACI. Every semester that SPACE continues to work at the prison, we validate the terms of the prison itself. The staff at the ACI goes above and beyond in their support of SPACE, and they have shown a consistently progressive and thoughtful approach to offender rehabilitation. But their goals as prison administrators do not necessarily line up with my vision for a better criminal justice system. By improving conditions within the prison, SPACE tacitly agrees to improve the ACI itself. We abide by their rules, and we help improve the inmates’ experience. We work for them.

At least one SPACE facilitator has quit the program because he could not reconcile his political ideology with the weekly validation of prison structure. If I envision an America with fewer prisons and better alternatives, why am I trying to make this prison better?

Of course the work SPACE does is important, and political, if only because there are now slightly more Brown University students who recognize the humanity of the men and women whom our society deems outcasts. And, clearly, there is a difference between improving prisons and improving the experiences of individuals inside them. But we are deluding ourselves if we believe that our work has a more lasting impact than the conditions and choices that precede us. An arts workshop will not help pay bills, provide childcare, or eliminate the temptations of drug abuse. And we are equally delusional if we don’t recognize the paradox of working for a better society within prisons, as opposed to acting to reduce the number of people they hold.

SPACE does good work. We break the monotony of prisons for those inside, and we provide a less-structured environment that encourages self-expression. It isn’t enough to address the larger social issues that have created the fundamental injustices of the criminal justice system. And on my worst days, I worry that our work facilitates those injustices. Intellectually, I know that the United States systematically incarcerates poor people of minority background, black men especially. Our prisons have functioned as agents of segregation and oppression since the end of slavery. A flickering of national attention has been brought to the issue, but it will be many decades before our country rights this racial injustice.

However, today I feel good about being able to improve someone else’s day through art. Hopefully I’ll be ready for the revolution tomorrow.

JESS BENDIT B’12 calls herself a radical.