Thursday, July 18, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Stacy Bell McQuaide

GUEST BLOGGER: Stacy Bell McQuaide is a  Senior Lecturer in English at Oxford College of Emory University. She volunteers at Lee Arrendale State Prison and has been leading classes for incarcerated women on reading and writing memoir since 2010.

                               What Does Auschwitz Have to Do with Mass Incarceration?


Earlier this summer I attended a conference about prisons in Prague; afterwards I spent several weeks traveling in Eastern Europe and visited two concentration camps.  Stutthoff is an hour from Gdansk, formerly the German city of Danzig, where WW2 began on September 1, 1939.  The barracks that remain in that eerie museum feature art installations reminding us that while the majority of souls exterminated there were Jews murdered in the Holocaust, many others were incarcerated and killed for “crimes” ranging from resistance against the Germans to homosexuality to being an intellectual. Next I visited Auschwitz, arguably the most heinous prison conceived by humans, but I was so numb from Stutthoff that not even the scale of Auschwitz II could move me.  I passed through as quickly as I could and did not allow my eyes to rest on the exhibits—thousands of pounds of human hair, rows of immaculate tallits—designed to underscore not just the horror of the Nazis, but the scale of that horror.


I was thinking about crime and how we define it, and incarceration and how we use it, both as a means to a socially-sanctioned end. Let me stress that I am not drawing a parallel between the mass incarceration of Americans in 2013 and the extermination of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis. But visiting the camps forced me to reflect deeply on my experiences since I began going into prisons as a volunteer in 2010, and to consider what it means to be complicit in a system that concentrates the ostracized other.


Today, when we consider the Holocaust and the murder of so many millions, we decry the extermination of innocents; but as I walked through the camps I was struck by the terrifying realization that the people interred there were not innocent.  Indeed, they had been defined as “criminals” by the Nazi machine, and when you visit these places, you have to confront the fact that the Nazi effort was made possible by the complicity of many people.  I’m not a historian, and I don’t want to go into detail about that period of history.  I want to focus on the fact that every social group throughout history has defined deviance and then has struggled to deal with deviance collectively.  “Crime” is any behavior proscribed by the state. Definitions of crime are socially negotiated and vary across time and place—the definitions are largely created by those holding greater agency. “Citizens” accept the definitions that have been created for them, as they unconsciously maintain the privilege of the elite—a group that represents the central aspirations of the culture.


In the superb documentary The House I Live in, historian Richard Miller explains how elite groups preserve their power and status through the process of identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and finally annihilation. He makes an explicit analogy between the Holocaust and the practice of mass incarceration in the U.S. In response, David Simon, journalist and renowned director of The Wire, asserts, “The drug war is a holocaust in slow motion.”


When I am inside prison, I always think about confiscation:  everything that has been taken away from the women in my classes, not just their property and their freedom, but in so many cases the opportunities and options that might have prevented them from ever going to prison. But when it comes to rallying the public against the terrible costly failure that is our incarceration system, those of us who witness from inside have a lot of work to do around identification….working to change the way “crime” is defined, working to change the way criminal behaviors are associated with certain groups, and working to change the way people inside are perceived by those outside. I hate when people say the incarcerated have made “bad choices”—it is the most othering language imaginable, as it pretends that everyone chooses from the same palette.


It is very easy now to believe that the Nazi reign of terror was a sad anomaly in human history.  “Never again, “ we say. Miller and Simon have a point.  The U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, a system that concentrates and in many cases annihilates disproportionately minority populations of ostracized others whose choices were narrowly circumscribed on the day they were born.  How do we shake our national complicity in this broken system?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. V, Staff member of Reforming Arts at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. V, Instructor at Reforming Arts at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia

This entry comes  from a staff member at Reforming Arts located at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, reminding us how often we may take things in our life for granted and encourages us not only to take a minute to reflect but to embrace the view from another's perspective. 


There is nothing like a healthy dose of perspective. What do I mean by that? Let me explain. It is so easy for me to take for granted all of the privileges that make up my daily life. For example, I have endless choices of what to eat at restaurants or buy at the grocery store; the freedom to decide where I want to live, work, and visit; and the right to keep all of my skeletons in the privacy of my own personal closet. I often fall into the routine of forgetting just how fortunate I am and just how challenging my life would be if I had gotten caught making certain mistakes that could have easily landed me behind bars. After paying a few visits to the Reforming Arts class at Lee Arrendale State Prison (LASP), I learned three powerful lessons that stuck like glue to the walls of my heart:

It was lunchtime when I learned a lesson in sharing. Most of the women in the Reforming Arts class went off to the cafeteria while a few stayed behind for handmade “spring rolls.” This innovative meal consisted of a flour tortilla shell filled with Ramen Noodles and ground beef, topped with a savory sweet-and-sour sauce made from blending cherry Kool-Aid powder, water, and crushed Cheetos. Once the spring rolls were formed, they were carefully placed between a hot flat iron to give them a warm, toasty crunch. These delicacies aren’t easy to come by with costly commissary prices and when there is only one woman who has the culinary skills to make them “just right.” Still, when it came time to eat, the first thing this one student did, without hesitation, was offer her spring roll to me. I could feel my eyes well up and a lump begin to form in my throat. How could she, in an environment that is devoid of decent food, be so generous with what little she had? As it turns out, spring rolls are just too delicious not to share. I had come face-to-face with a kind of raw selflessness that cracked me wide open.

On another visit, I was reminded of my freedom. It being holiday season, like many people, my thoughts were crowded with travel plans and gift ideas. In the midst of all these distractions and after having so much fun watching the students’ improv performances, I found myself a little disconnected with the reality that I was a free person inside of a prison. After class, I asked one of the students, a young, hilarious, bright woman, “So when are you getting out?” I watched as her playful look became heavy and sad. She answered, “Not for a while. I have 4 years to go.” I was speechless. Damn. Four years? An entire college career? 48 months? For four years this incredible spirit, with all of her potential, all of her light, and all of her talent, would be trapped in prison? It was a hard pill to swallow. In that moment, as I remembered my freedom, I was reminded that she, and so many others like her, are trapped in cages for years and years to come.

“Good morning, class. I want to ask everyone to share your name and something fun and interesting about yourself.” My third lesson reminded me of the enormous privilege that comes with having a clean criminal record. In addition to numerous housing, employment, and other social advantages that are mine to take for granted, I became deeply aware of my unexamined right to conceal my wrongdoings, my skeletons, and my shadows. As we went around the room, some of the women were speechless, unsure of how to talk about themselves without including some explanation, some account of how they got to be locked up. One woman began talking about some of the events that led to her incarceration and I interrupted her, “You don’t have to explain any crimes here. Did I start out my introduction with my laundry list of past crimes? Of course not, because I know I can keep those skeletons in my own personal closet. And in this space, you can do that too.”

Incarceration dehumanizes people on many levels, but this instance was a perfect illustration of how prison can make people feel like all of who they are boils down to a crime they did or did not commit. Human beings are so intricate, so multifaceted, and so diverse that it is simply impossible to define them according to a few moments in time. To me, it is a crime to limit complex, ever-changing people to one or a few past actions. Yet, these incarcerated students, and many others like them, are constantly being told, explicitly and subtly, that they are not people—they are criminals. Incarcerated people deserve to know in their heart of hearts that they are not their crimes. They are people. Interesting, complicated, ever-evolving, clusters of mind, body, and spirit, just like everyone else. Just like me. Just like you. I was reminded of my right to decide who gets to know the darkest corners of my past and I saw one of the ways incarceration and criminal records deny people the right to be an imperfect person just like everyone else.

Three lessons. Three opportunities to confront my otherwise invisible privilege and expand my limited perspective. Three reasons to be forever grateful to the incredible women imprisoned at LASP and to Wende Ballew of Reforming Arts for making all of this possible..
Dr. V

Monday, July 8, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Victor M. Vincent, Jr.

GUEST BLOGGER: Victor M. Vincent, Jr.

I am pleased to share this heartfelt entry from Victor, a fellow Guilford College Alumn. He shares his thoughts as someone who has been formerly incarcerated and transformed by his educational attainment. Victor is the Founder of The Re-Entry Expert, an organization that "reaches out to those who have been incarcerated; raising the bar and allowing them to be successful after incarceration."

Victor M. Vincent, Jr.
The Re-Entry Expert

As someone formerly incarcerated, I was asked what higher education could afford someone who is or who has been incarcerated. As an ex-offender it would only be fair to speak first about the journey during and after incarceration.

Many people in prison ponder life after incarceration. Offenders dream of getting their lives together and having a successful life once they are released. However, when inmates get close to their release date fear sets in. Not a strong fear, just fear of the reality that life will be harder. Many ex-offenders build themselves up by saying “I can wash dishes or sweep floors and make it” because these are the jobs that sustain them while incarcerated. Life is so different once an inmate is released. Coming out of a downward spiraling economy an inmate realizes he has to compete for these lower wage positions to only be paid minimum wage. Higher education offers an environment which aids in the development of someone who is or has been incarcerated, offering the opportunity to live above the poverty line.

Speaking as an ex-offender I have often felt stuck, limited and coheres into low wage paying jobs. College has given me the opportunity to once again dream of a successful life and allowed me to understand my walk in life.  I was able to understand why I turned to crime at a young age and how I had to change my methods of thinking.  History gave understanding, law classes gave explanations, and business classes taught me how to conduct myself in the work environment. My professors took time to listen to me, believe in me and encourage me to make a positive difference in the world.

In 2011 I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and created a re-entry Program to assist and aid in the development of ex-offenders. Higher education has given me the skills to give back to the community and is a much needed resource for inmates and those who have been released.    

Victor M Vincent Jr.

Guilford Alum 2011

Victor M Vincent Jr. The Re-Entry Expert