When people ask me how my week learning about issues surrounding the prison system and prison reform in Baltimore during spring break was, my first response is: “I can’t even put words to it.” Well, I’m going to try.
As I mentioned in my last post, my week began on the first Friday of spring break, as I led my group in departing from Loyola at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to stop for a bite to eat on our way to the prison for the weekend-long workshop we would be participating in, called AVP, or Alternatives to Violence. This was to be the beginning of the SBO (Spring Break Outreach) trip I was leading on prison reform in Baltimore, through CCSJ.
Before that day, I had never set foot inside a prison, and I had only occasionally glanced at the barbed wire surrounding local prisons from a distance. But that Friday evening, as the sun set around us in an unfamiliar place, and the gray sky emitted an eerie glow, the barbed wire lining the high fences around the prison yard was the first thing I noticed as I pulled into the lot.
Like the rest of the group, I was nervous about entering a maximum-security institution, uncomfortable with being patted down, and unsure about how we would be received by the “inside guys,” as we quickly learned to call the inmates.
Though I don’t want to reveal any of the guys’ personal details or those things they told us about themselves in confidence, I will describe my own experience and the incredible effect the weekend had on me.
By the end of the first night of the workshop, I already felt safe and comfortable in the group, made up of me and five of my SBO participants (the other six were in another room), seven inside participants, three inside facilitators, and two outside facilitators.
By the end of the second day, I had developed a community and unbreakable bond with the seventeen other people in the room. This may sound ridiculous to say, but I felt that in that room, I could be my completely authentic self, with zero fear of judgment, in a way that was very different from anything I had ever experienced. It was different from hanging out in a dorm room with college friends, reuniting with high school friends, or spending time with my family. The focus in that room was on community, communication, and authenticity, and we were all committing to that openness and vulnerability by our willingness to participate in the workshop.
Throughout the weekend different aspects of the workshop focused on peaceful methods of approaching conflict, role plays, group activities, one-on-one conversations, group conversations, and fun group games that caused the entire room to erupt in laughter. Without giving away too much about the program of AVP, I can say that as I looked around that room on Sunday afternoon and into the eyes of each of my new friends for what was probably the last time, I knew I would never forget a single one of them.
Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think this statement is one very efficient way of summing up my experience of AVP. Years from now I won’t remember the exact words any particular individual may have said to me during AVP, or the exact conversations we had, but I will never forget that feeling of having all of my misconceptions blown away and my eyes opened to what it truly means to see the humanity of all persons and to be united as brothers and sisters with my fellow human beings.
Despite the hardships the inside guys have endured before and during their incarceration, they were still some of the most honest, authentic, and sometimes joyful people I have ever had the blessing to meet. And the same can be said for those my group met during the rest of our SBO week.
For the next five days after AVP, my group served with a number of re-entry organizations in Baltimore, which aid those who were formerly incarcerated in things like job skills, resume writing, the job search, clothing, food, housing, and other necessities. I had no idea about the challenges facing returning citizens after they’ve been incarcerated, and I’m proud to say there’s a number of excellent resources and hard-working non-profits in my beloved city fighting for the rights of that large and growing population.
After a week of seeing first-hand the inequities in the prison system and sentencing (largely based on race and class), seeing the inhumane treatment of people in prison, and witnessing the stigma society harshly places on those who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, I knew I had found my passion, something I cared about more than anything I have ever known.
My education about and experience with the criminal justice system is not over just because the week of SBO is over. I can’t stop reading books and articles about the issues and need for reform, and I have decided that the next step on my journey will likely be law school and further study in the field of criminal justice. It angers me to see the injustice present in the system, but it brings me hope to know that I have the knowledge, skills, resources, and passion to do something about it.
Leading this group of amazing and dedicated students (see my next post for more about the experience with the group!) and having this life-changing opportunity of experiential learning makes me feel so blessed for the opportunity to be a Loyola student. I feel like SBO has been a part of my education here, not just an extracurricular activity, and during the week I found myself using knowledge I had learned in the classroom to understand and process the new things I was learning.
Loyola gave me the opportunity to be more of a citizen of this city and of the world. I took that opportunity and made it my own. And for that, I am forever grateful.