By Briana Whiteside
A black woman teaching in a men’s maximum security prison means to willingly put my body in a constant state of danger for two hours every Wednesday. In the midst of organized protests against police brutality and destruction done to black bodies, I find it ironic that the common ground between my students and me, is in the hazardous state of our bodies within prison walls.
Last week we discussed John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), a memoir that recounts social pressures and psychological responses that landed Wideman’s brother in prison. Particularly, we could not move away from the author’s observation that prisoners’ bodies were in a constant state of danger. Students were particularly interested in the way that the author described the incarcerated disagreements with the keepers (prison guards) and the unmitigated power that guards have over inmates’ bodies. One of the students commented on the scarring of people – whether inmate, guard, or visitor – who come into contact with prison structures.
It was then that I realized the common ground I shared with my students while I was in prison teaching. Largely, from the time that I step onto prison grounds, my body is in danger. On the one hand, I am treated as a potential criminal through “routine” searches by guards who I must pass in order to get to the visitation yard. On the other hand, when I sit at a square table with 15 inmates who are serving life-sentences that are within arm’s reach, I am in a state of possible threat.
Even more, as Wideman points out in his narrative, guards may punish the inmate because he cannot retaliate against the inmate’s (disliked) visitor; I am conscious not to push back too hard against the harsh guard treatment that I experience when I check into the prison to receive clearance to teach. On a macro level, under the prison guard’s gaze, inmates’ bodies are consistently in a state of danger through my presence in the prison and the discussions in my class that interrogate political constructions of race that contributed to landing them in prison.
More importantly, over time, I discovered that it is due to possible harm done to my students when they are back in their cells that they are largely quiet on questions that pertain to prison living conditions. More often than not, in their required weekly reading responses, they answer the questions that they refuse to verbalize. Hence, not only are prisoner’s bodies endangered, but their voices are as well.
• Making an Impact on Prison Officers
• Critique of Manhood: Reading Native Son in an Alabama Medium Security Prison
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student at the University of Alabama and a contributing writer for Cultural Front.