By Dawn Cooke
I hear talk about freedom all of the time. As an artist, my first amendment right is pretty important. The fact that we can share our thoughts freely is something we often take for granted. It’s easy to do because we are taught to believe that we are entitled to be free and we can do or say anything we want in this country. The truth is, that’s not entirely the case. You have to go along with society’s laws and norms for the most part because if you can’t find a productive place in society for whatever reason, society will find a place for you and it might not be a place you would like to go…
Nothing makes you realize your freedom more than visiting a prison. I first stepped into the Huron Valley Women’s Prison for an orientation to work with the women in an art workshop (nothing to do with tattooing, just to clarify). It seemed just like any other state building I had ever been to, upon first glance. Obviously, going through security was arduous. They want you to account for every piece of jewelry and every item you take in, of course. Then they pat you down, look at your feet, shoes, in your mouth, and at this point you realize you are inside of a prison and every action and nuance of body language is under a microscope from both prison guards and prisoners. They give you an emergency device to keep on your person, in case someone tries to hurt you, I guess. The whole scene can be unnerving and yet strangely fascinating.
I realize that it is expected that there are violent criminals in prison, but the women I work with don’t seem threatening at all. They all seem like normal people who maybe had some problems in life and made some mistakes that they have to pay for. That’s not to say that there aren’t violent criminals that need to be dealt with; some of the women I have encountered are a little angry at the system and how our society operates. I think many of us could identify with that. A lot them have some substance abuse issues that got way out of control.
One of the prison policies is that a volunteer should not over-identify with a prisoner because they might fall prey to a ruse of some kind. I understand why this is a rule, but it is hard to try not to identify with some of the women because many of them are Moms like me. Some of them grew up with a single parent just like me. Some of them came from low-income families like me. There’s so much to identify with. The differences, I guess, are circumstances and choices. I don’t think having compassion should also be a crime, though. I don’t think being compassionate makes you vulnerable, though there are plenty of people who would take advantage of you because of it.
Women are the most growing demographic of prisoners in our country and we have to wonder why. I wonder why we lock people away in our society who were never given the tools to succeed in the first place. Why don’t they teach people in school how our laws work or maybe some life skills like how to grow food? Or if people have serious psychological issues, why aren’t they given access to the proper medical care? Instead we wage a WAR ON DRUGS. Or we just wage WAR in general. What about psychology and self-esteem? I guess it’s hard to feel confident when you’re not sure where to get food or if there’s no stability in a child’s household. I just am not sure that the best solution is to lock people up who are unable to conform. Maybe teaching them could be a better way.
Nothing makes you realize your freedom more than leaving a prison, but nothing makes you feel worse for the people still locked inside. I can’t fix the world’s problems, but I can try. One idea at a time, one blog at a time, one person at a time, starting with me.