Hold On, You Work in a Prison?
“So how is it being a prison intern?”
This is the question that is skeptically asked of me by my friends, family members, and anyone who finds out that I work with inmates as part of my summer internship. As an intern at the Olneyville nonprofit OpenDoors Rhode Island, I help to coordinate and facilitate the 9 Yards program along with my supervisor Nick Horton. The 9 Yards program is a comprehensive reentry program providing one-on-one and group mentoring to 15 men as part of a process designed to make sure they never go back to prison.
The program provides intensive supervision, education, employment, housing, and counseling to fully address the issues that lead to problems after release from prison. Part of my job as a coordinator is to assist with the weekly criminal law classes in the prison, as well as to lead the sections for the class, similar to a TA. I meet with the inmates in groups of three during their visiting hours to go over the readings and their homework assignments, and answer any questions they have about creating a plan for life post-release.
While I find my work with OpenDoors to be extremely fulfilling and necessary, it is not without its challenges. One of the biggest I have faced so far is the attention and conspicuity surrounding my presence in the prison as a young and presumably inexperienced female. Although I have been in prison visiting rooms countless times to see family members and am comfortable in the potentially dangerous environment that incarceration produces, it is impossible for me to escape the stereotypes that come with my gender and age. Upon hearing that I would be working directly with inmates, an older coworker joked, “Oooh they are going to eat you alive in there!” Despite the fact that she wasn't really serious, her comment reflected the attitude that everything about me, from my position as a Brown student to my mere 20 years, left me ill-prepared to handle to myself around hardened, cynical men that don't get to interact with many women outside of their correctional officers.
While some of this concern is certainly justified, it undermines my ability to be taken seriously and more importantly sheds light on the fact that by most people within the criminal justice system, inmates are perceived as animalistic con men that have little control over their own behavior. I have been warned that inmates will try to deceive and manipulate me as soon as they get the chance, and friends wonder why I would even want to work in a prison “with all those guys giving you dirty looks all the time."
However this way of thinking loses sight of the fact that inmates are also people too. They are brothers, fathers, sons, and husbands, victims of unfair circumstances and men that have made bad decisions just like everyone else. They like to listen to music and play sports, to spend time with their families and hang out with their friends. Most often, those who are incarcerated just want someone to talk to about their lives, someone who can absorb and validate their stories and identities. Acknowledging our commonalities as human beings does not justify the crimes of the inmates in the 9 Yards program, but it forces me to reflect on the fact that anyone can succumb to the social, economic, personal, and emotional pressures faced in a world where inequality is guaranteed.
By being straight-forward, open-minded, and a good listener, I believe that I take on the role of a mentor and ally that has nothing to do with my age or gender. Even though my presence in the prison is seen as strange and unwarranted by some, I enjoy the challenge of pushing back against expectations while also affirming the humanity in all of us.