I've got this movie that plays in my mind
There’s this movie inside of my mind that is constantly playing. This movie plays even when I am not actively watching it. Though my attention will wander elsewhere and to other things at times, any time I wish to, I can peek in and see a familiar scene from this movie playing. The movie plays in a 27 year chronological time line but it seems to be sped up in such a way that it only takes a day or two for this movie to play from beginning to end, upon which it promptly starts over from the beginning again. This movie that plays is the reflection of my life. From my earliest memories, all the way up to present day.
Years ago when I first set out on a journey to figure out who I was as a human being, I figured out that to really understand myself on an intimate level, I was going to have to dissect every belief, every thought, every memory, and every behavior. So I began reflecting and writing down everything I could remember about me, my life, and the journey I was on. I was looking for patterns; I was looking for the arbitrary. I was looking for something that would explain the reason behind all of the pain and all of the hardship I had experienced.
Once I had reflected on and written out enough of my random and jumbled memories, what began to happen was that my mind began taking all of that information and putting all the random memories into a chronological timeline for me. Then, this timeline began to play like a movie in my mind so that I could constantly watch it and reflect on it, picking up new things that I had not seen or noticed before. I could watch myself and my actions as one would watch a character in a movie. I had an outsider’s perspective and I often found myself questioning “what the hell was that all about” after viewing some peculiar behavior of mine. I would become absorbed with trying to make sense of things like, why when I was six years old did I call that little girl on the playground “blackie”, why when I was thirteen years old did I enter into an abusive relationship with a twenty year old man, or why did I have to be so callous to my father in the days before he took his own life and why was I unable to comfort my brother the day after.
There were hundreds of these questions that I would write down, and one by one I would hit play on the movie of my life and find the answers to these questions. In that process, I came to a better understanding of who I was and how I’d become that person. Even more importantly, I came to a better understanding of how to stop being this person that I’d become.
Back in real life, every once in a while something that I read, see, or hear will resonate with one or several of these scenes in my movie and connect the dots to a bigger picture and a better understanding of who I am. It is these “ah-hah” moments that are so constructive that I wait for (sometimes not so patiently) so I can continue this process of my evolution. You see, there is this woman that I long to be, this woman whom I am destined to be. This woman has the full perspective on why I was dealt the hand in life that I’ve been dealt. This woman holds no resentment, is ignorant to nothing, and see’s from a bird’s eye view all of the answers to the questions that still linger in my heart. This woman takes all of my pain and sorrow and transforms it into power and knowledge so that she may help others to see what she sees. This woman must exist and I must either find her or accept that all of the pain and all of the suffering has been for naught and that sometimes; this is just how life goes. If I were to accept the latter I feel like there would be nothing left to do but follow in the footsteps of my father and rid myself the pain of this world, so I refuse the latter and get to work on finding this woman who gives sense to the suffering.
Last week in class we had guest speaker Walidah Imarisha. It was after Walidah’s visit that I had one of these coveted “ah-hah” moments. I was surprised by how many of my classmates were stunned by the statistics and the shady business deals within the American penal system. I thought that everybody knew these things and that this was just common knowledge. I couldn’t figure out why they were so stunned. I know that there has been a tremendous amount of literature and documentaries produced which cover these issues. I also know that all one has to do is look and they will find all of this information at their fingertips. It was while pondering this that my movie began playing in my mind. I began searching the movie, rewinding and fast forwarding, trying to replay the moments and circumstances that led to me having an understanding of the American penal system and why I even have an understanding of it at all. As I watched the footage in my mind, I began connecting what have always seemed like very separate parts of my life into one common experience that led to my interest and consequential understanding of the penal system.
My family history is littered with prison sentences. When I was seven years old my uncle was sent away to prison, I didn’t see him again for 10 years. My mother’s brother (whom I’ve never met) was sent away to prison before I was old enough to know him. He’s still there today. When I was ten, my father “disappeared” for a year. It was only as an adult that I put the pieces together that he’d been serving a prison sentence. My step father served two ten year sentences in the 60’s and 70’s. My 12 year old daughter’s father was sent to prison when she was five. He’s still there today too. My brother has been in and out of a variety of penal institutions within the last nine years since our father’s suicide, usually due to his rapidly deteriorating mental health. In my own adolescence between the age of twelve and fifteen I was in and out of juvenile detention centers so often that I had bonds with and was favored by the staff. I served my very last sentence in a detention hall at 15. My swollen belly of pregnancy didn’t mix so well with the cots they gave us to sleep on so I decided to stop going there. I haven’t been back since.
Prior to Walidah Imarisha’s visit to our classroom, I had looked at each of these experiences separately as if there were no common theme amongst them. This “ah-hah” moment I had while trying to figure out why I had a knowledge of the penal system while others did not, helped me to find that common theme and link all of these experiences together. I began thinking about other people’s experiences with the penal system. I thought of classmates, friends, lovers, housemates, and acquaintances. Nobody I knew had had as much cohabitation with the penal system as I have had. I began to see that the reason I know the dark side of the penal system is because I have a vested interest in it. I actively seek out and take time to read literature and watch documentaries that expose the dark realities of prisons because the penal system has played such a significant role in my life and has shaped my perspective as a result.
I also started making the connections between my experiences with the penal systems and the poverty within my family lineage. Through this I came to an even better understanding of who I am and where I am at in my own personal journey in relation to others within my current radius and the disparities between my knowledge of the penal system and that of my peers. Though surly not all students attending university come from privileged backgrounds (we have laws against that now and diversity to soap box), but the majority of university students have lived a life which for the most part has been sheltered from the tentacles of poverty and penitentiaries. To people who are fortunate enough to live their existence without brushing up against the penal system, the system is black and white. The system is a tool to enact justice and prisons are a place where bad people go. Don’t break the law and you won’t go there. They are separate from the issues because they do not affect them, hence; they’ve no further reason to investigate and never become aware of these truths unless someone sits them down in a room and forces them to listen.
I am thankful that women like Walidah are bringing these issues to the classroom and that awareness is being raised. For me, it can’t happen quickly enough. People like my brother, who just turned twenty four last week, are dependent upon a major overhaul in the system. Due to the many traumas of his life, my brother’s capacity to handle and function in life has dissipated. There is not a bed for him in the appropriate facilities where he can get help with his mental illnesses so when he breaks the law, they toss him into a jail or prison cell. Within a few days, he’s promptly sent to suicide watch and isolated for inhumane lengths of time. Months later when he is released, his mental stability always seems to have diminished even further. All the begging and pleading in the world have not been able to produce a social worker who can find him the help he needs.
When I look back at all the people in my life who have served time in the system, not one of them have reaped any rehabilitation from their time served. In fact, most of the time it leaves them worse off than they were going in. My daughter’s father was a violent man before getting sent away, however as the years pass the report out of Snake River Penitentiary is that he has become even more entrenched in gang activity and violence. He serves much of his time in solitary confinement which is time served that does nothing to reduce his prison sentence.
I do not advocate for eliminating consequences for violent behavior and I am not delusional to the need for safe communities. I merely am able to see that the system in place is not effective in its goal of rehabilitating individuals and that there are a lot of people benefiting from this business called the penal system. We see this same factory farming approach in our education system. We toss hundreds, even thousands of people into an institution, put them on a production line and push them through. We do not understand that for human beings to gain personal enlightenment, they need personal mentorship. They need the guidance of someone who has knowledge to pass on to them and help them reach their potential. If this personal approach is not applied, human beings just go through the motions without benefits of character transformation. Whether the goal is to complete a prison sentence or achieve a degree, it’s the same concept.
The only way to fix this is to totally deconstruct and disassemble the existing system, learn from the things that did not work and attempt to recreate something that does. The only way that this will happen is if enough people are made aware of the issues and become enraged enough to demand that things start changing. When I think about it, that’s pretty much what needs to happen in all sectors of our society. I recall the French Revolution and wonder how far off the American experiment is from entering into a similar slide of events. What does that world look like on the other side? What part do I play in this push for revolution?