You have learned many things in prison, and here is one of them: your body is dangerous. It is neon.
From the moment you pass through the metal detector, until the moment you walk back along the fence that separates the recreation area from chapel-classroom-chow hall, it’s a flashing sign, open open.
For most of your life, you have worked to be invisible, which is what you prefer. You’ve only felt physically or sexually picked out of a crowd twice in your life.
When you walk through the teasing open air of the prison yard, don’t think about these times.
Don’t think about the gun, held to your head in Cincinnati; don’t think about the weight of the stranger pushing you against a brick wall in Seattle. Try not to remember the way every part of you, even your elbows knew, he was going to rape you if you didn’t run. Instead of letting your elbows remember the fear, think instead of the damning details surrounding those circumstances. Focus on the part you played in that fear. That, in Cincinnati, you were copping heroin in the wrong neighborhood. That, in Seattle, you were trying to buy crack. Focus on your own rash and violent self-destruction and convince yourself that this is part of the reason you belong here now.
Remind yourself that, for being alive 35 years as a woman, your statistics are good. You are lucky. You have played invisibility well.
Instead of letting yourself melt into the past, try to remember you are here, in the prison yard, neon in your possession of a woman’s body. When you walk past the chain link fence where small groups of men play cards and basketball and slowly walk the perimeter, feel the actual fear that radiates from the bodies of the guards who escort you. They need you to behave yourself.
Instead of letting yourself melt into the past, focus on how the students here treat you with respect, a kind of reverence you’ve never experienced. You wonder if it has something to do with the combination of that neon woman-ness and your forbidden-ness; your impenetrability.
Because there is no possibility of sex here, there is an increased desire for intimacy. In your classes at the prison, it always feels like a first date until it feels like you’ve been married your whole lives, and it happens in an instant. Hesitation and hunger, followed by deep silence and coming back through irreconcilable difference. You are intimate with these men like no other people in your life.
You know this makes the guards nervous, so you have found strategies to disappear; the dress you are wearing today is one such strategy. The silhouette resembles a nun’s habit, and you have kept it in your closet solely because it annoys your mother. Are you trying to repel men, she asks when you show up to dinner wearing it.
You walk with James, a correctional officer and biker in his mid-40s who escorts you to the classroom each week. He warns you that the nun’s dress isn’t a good choice.
See how it brushes against the ground when you walk? That’s not good. You wouldn’t believe what winds up on the floor here. And let me tell you what I was told when I started working here 20 years ago. You know who has AIDS in here? Everybody but you. Now you wouldn’t believe what comes out of these guys’ bodies. Truly. Never seen anything like it. Don’t take chances with brushing that shit on the bottom of your dress.
Five minutes later, James tells you his entire dating history before class begins. I don’t like sleeping alone, he tells you. Everyone here is lonely to talk.
You are hyper-aware of your body. In class, it becomes impossible for you not to notice every time you move your leg, that your hand comes within inches of your students’ bodies when you pass out papers. They can smell the gardenia and sandalwood in your hair. You are dangerous. Forbidden. You are surrounded by things you are not allowed to touch.
You are as full as a tick with the outside. Everyone wants you caught on the top of their sock, sucking, flush with freedom. And you are disruptive. In the hierarchy of power, you do not fit neatly in any position. You do not work for anyone inside these walls. You are not in charge of anyone else, either. The fact that you exist outside the power structure everyone here is working so hard to maintain means that you’re dangerous to its sanctity.
You have never felt dangerous before; you have never felt forbidden. And it is a powerful energy that you want to hold onto. You can imagine how intoxicating this would become if you let yourself keep drinking it. The power to be feared. It is something you wonder about your students. Did they get off on the danger of their lives? The fear they instilled in others? Or was it exhausting to be feared? Was it exhausting to be noticed? What was the ratio of exhaustion to intoxication? Which one helped survival more?
The students trickle in, talking about the mysteries of what kind of fish might exist inside the patties just doled out. They sit strategically beside allies. Ralph and Rusty, Marcus and Maurice. They seem to have very little in common with each other, which is something that first surprised you. Rusty was a corporate lawyer and is going through chemotherapy. He is in his 70s, has only been here a year and knows he will die in prison. He writes essays about his wife, and watching the birds build nests in the prison yard. He tells the young guys the one thing they should learn is the difference between obsession and love. Ralph had a death penalty commuted and will also die in prison, though he’s only 42 and has already served 21 years. He walks with a cane, bought a typewriter with his commissary money, and has written an epic trilogy about the history of the African-American experience of Islam. He counts among his favorite authors Toni Morrison, Proust, and Sylvia Plath. There’s a group of young white guys who tell you each week that they aren’t very good writers, they just want to get off their cell blocks, but then they write stories about growing up near rusty rivers and watching fish float on the banks, wondering if they’re okay to eat. You’ve been surprised how little race seems to matter in your classroom when people start reading their poems and stories; how the seats aren’t segregated by color but by age. The young guys who still have a life outside the walls sit together, and the older guys who have discovered this is life, too, inside these walls, sit together.
You are balancing all these things as you talk about sentence structure and vowel sounds, the way a staccato k feels different than a languid o. You are aware of every fold in your mouth as you read the poems that demonstrate these things. You realize how exhausting it is to balance all the awareness and also try to disappear into this dress, into a poem, into your normal invisibility.
Like everyone, you were taught lies about your power and agency in the world. You were told that you were not made of material strong enough to shake structures. That was a lie. You were lied to when someone told you that you were a safe thing. When someone told you, you are not dangerous.
But these are the least of the lies that you navigate in the prison system.
The greater lie is what everyone else here has been told—they are only dangerous and made for mistakes. They are never safe. There is always watching, that there is never time to rest and be invisible.
Ralph writes an essay about it. He writes that only in prison did he come to find out he wasn’t so dangerous after all, that there was a sense of freedom in never being looked upon as a threat. For some men, it is only in prison that there is finally a place to become invisible, to rest.
When you started teaching here, you talked about creating visibility and voice. Art is to make us known, to make something to be seen, to have an audience. You had decided that the invisibility of the incarcerated to the outside world was harmful to everyone, both inside and outside the walls. But what you’ve learned since then is that you’re here because art is also a way to lose yourself inside something bigger, to camouflage yourself, to rest and retreat in the comfort of making something no one else has to see if you don’t want them to. Yes, art is used to shine a light, but it is also something you can hide inside.
As you write, you try to engage. You try to model the practice you tell your students about. Keep your hands moving. Don’t censor yourself. Nothing is too trivial. But it’s hard to focus in prison. That’s one thing prison is very good at. It serves as a constant distraction. You are constantly paranoid here. Constantly thinking about who is lying. Even in the three hours a week you are here, you can feel the crawling suffocation of paranoia blanket you.
The guards lie to you, sometimes the students lie to you, the warden, the principal. You start to lie, too. Once, when someone asked if you were a mother, you said yes, because it seemed like that might be protection from invasive questions. It seemed like a way to place yourself in a box that didn’t require more explanation, questions of why you weren’t or if you wanted to be. There is so little time each week, and each minute that requires an explanation of you is less time for an explanation of something more important. And you being here is contradictory and complicated, and their being here is complicated and contradictory. All of it would take so long to explain because it would require all of us to be more than one thing.
Something else you’ve learned in prison: it is difficult to be more than just one thing inside its walls. Guard. Inmate. Man. Woman. Black. White. And because a poem or a piece of music or a great painting is always about more than just one thing, it is sometimes difficult to talk about poetry inside these walls.
As everyone writes, wrists and pencils sometimes knock into each other—the tables are small and the chairs, pushed together to make enough room for all the men who want to write each week. The closeness of everything here is difficult. The job of the prison is to eliminate witness and instead foster the kind of blindness that is bred in close quarters. The kind of microscopically close perspective that makes everything appear to be a jumbled mass of cellular matter—to make it scientific, numeric; to put everyone on top of each other and sooner or later, they’ll become a single object.
Witness requires space. And so sometimes, you find, the most beautiful sight in the classroom is a fresh, blank page with nothing but space; maybe without even the possibility of being filled, but instead just the empty promise of nothing yet drawn.
You fold yourself into the paper like an origami teacher. And for a moment, you can feel its gentle weight on those dangerous fingers of yours. And then you do it: you disappear.
You can hear it in the way everyone has become comfortable breathing together. You can hear it in the way Rusty’s leg has stopped tapping and Ralph has put his head on the table, cradling his paper like a baby—the same posture you write with when you lay in bed in the morning. You know because the only thing you can hear is the scratching of the guard’s radio and, finally, no one seems to be distracted by it. Not even you.
It is time to leave, and just like every other time you’ve left, you imagine the same thing as you walk again past the fenced-in recreation area. What would happen if you ran a single finger over those chain links, if you let your chipped nails, your fat and imperfect and impossibly dangerous fingers glide over the metal and linger? How much silence can a place take? How long could a group of people collectively hold breath until you all agree: blink now. Let go.
SARAH SHOTLAND is the author of a novel, Junkette, and a playwright whose work has been produced nationally and internationally. She teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University and is the co-founder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons and rehabilitation centers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ☆ Judge Paul Lisicky selected “On Visiting Prison, Again,” as winner of Proximity’s 2016 Personal Essay Prize.