Friday, October 31, 2014

Passing the prison in Salinas

Report from Soledad, California, outside the Correctional Training Center: When I was a kid, I was very determined to be good. Nearly all of the time I did the chores I was asked to do. I finished my homework each night. I practiced my trombone most of the time. I didn't like disappointing my parents and they expected me to work hard at everything that I did. And they were always there to help with homework and ferry me and my sister around to our extra-curricular activities. I was very lucky.

If I unwittingly made friends with kids at school who wanted to wreck things, steal things, or cheat, I found a way not to be around them. And, eventually, they found someone else to help them set books on fire in the teacher's yard (yes, that really did happen!).

But sometimes I wonder if I wanted to be good because my parents were very good. They read to us. They sang to us. They colored in coloring books with us. Even though they were broke college students, they took us to art museums, concerts, and movies. I distinctly remember going to see a claymation movie festival when I was eight with my Dad in Harvard Square. Mom & Dad encouraged us to think we could do anything and everything -- piano, children's theater, choir, dance, and on and on.

If I wanted to make a replica of a Swiss village out of clay, my Dad was in. If I wanted sew my own clothes, my mom got out her machine. We had good teachers and bad teachers. We went to excellent schools and some that were considered poor. But my parents were always our first teachers.

My sister and I argued, we threw tantrums, we were cranky, and we went through growing pains many times over. We weren't perfect, but we did try to be our best, all of us, as much as we could.

So when Billy and I rode by one of the nation's most famous overpopulated prisons (at 170% of capacity), I couldn't help wondering what kind of person I would have been if I didn't know where my next meal was coming from, if I'd never had anyone read to me, if I couldn't read, if my neighborhood was full of gangs and my parents were working three jobs each, never home. What if I was threatened every day of my life? What if my childhood had been full of guns, drugs, and fear, instead of ballet shoes, pizza night, and laughter. Would I be the same me? Or would I be one of the 200,000 women in federal prison in this country or one of the 1 million women on probation or parole. 

Or would I, like the girl I saw on McHenry Street in West Baltimore, have been able to find my way in the other America, the invisible America, to making flags out of a trash heap and a color guard out of a bunch of girls just as vulnerable as myself? 

Most of us will never be tested in this way. 

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