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Taking My Students to Prison

I recently read this powerful piece by Jean Trounstine. Jean has graciously agreed to let me repost it here, so that I can share it with my readers. It originally appeared at


Every semester my students from Voices Behind Bars, a class I teach at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, go to prison. They used to visit state institutions but now that the Massachusetts state prisons do not offer tours (perhaps because it is a hassle to have outsiders trooping through them and criticizing what they see) the students take a tour of Billerica House of Correction, where they experience confinement to some degree and listen for an hour to an incarcerated man talk about his life and what it is like to be behind bars.

Originally, the Middlesex House of Correction was built in 1929 and housed 300 men. Now it has more than 1100, after a $37 million dollar expansion which prison officials say was to accommodate the closing of the Cambridge Jail —not without objections from activists and community members who opposed more prison building (actually costing $43 million per The Lowell Sun.)

I’ve always thought it’s not ideal to have my students learn about prison by going to a place where people are only kept for 2 1/2 years, the county sentence at a house of correction. Certainly a far cry from a life sentence. I told myself students couldn’t really learn as much about the strains of prison without seeing the harsher conditions that exist in state institutions. That is, until this last visit.

Most of the tour went as usual. We went through the older part of the facility where cells can get up to 110 degrees in the summer. We saw the visiting room where men talk to their loved ones through glass. The officer who showed the students around Billerica explained that prisoners must walk on the green stripes in the hallways; there were the usual men cleaning with mops and pushing large barrels down walkways; the smell was of too much cleaning fluid. We passed through the health unit where men were waiting to see practitioners and others were isolated in cells. It was prison as usual.

We no longer are allowed to see the Hole or what prison officials call the Segregation Unit, since men are there disciplined to solitary confinement which my students know Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently said can drive men mad. Therefore, the highlight of the tour is always taking them into what is called a “pod.” A pod is the relatively new term in prison construction where prisoners can live in a contained unit. These pods are somewhat stale and robot-like but they allow the COs the ability to see what is going on.

We entered the pod where men do drug treatment and have earned some privileges. It has the reputation of being a better place to reside than the old part of the institution which is pretty grim and can house two men in a cell. To the left is one old institutional unit at Blillerica, looking a little prettier than it really is with whitewashed grey walls, all somehow devoid of color in reality:

On the pod we entered, those incarcerated run some of the addiction groups themselves, we were told. On the tier above the day room where prisoners sit, eat, and play cards at the tables, are rows of cells where men live. The same cells are on the first floor all around the room.  Each cell has a tiny vertical slit—a window—and when we come into their space, the men inevitably stare out the window at us. At times, they’ve pounded on their doors; at other times, they’ve all been at tables eating lunch, trying to ignore the fact that there are outsiders nearby.

This time, when the twenty of us entered, there were only a few men in their brownish beige uniforms sitting at tables. Another two were talking to the guards who policed the room, two perched at a computerized station at one end. The students all took turns entering a cell to see what it is like, a rather disturbing experience on many levels for most of them. One student, we’ll call her Sofia, suddenly turned toward me as Spanish was heard above us. She pointed up at a window where a man smiled widely and pressed his face against the slit.

“That’s my brother,” Sofia said, her eyes filling with tears.

I looked up and he waved at me, his sister’s teacher. Sofia looked away.

I asked the young woman if she had known he would be here, and yes, Sofia said, she knew he was in this  facility but no, she had no idea she might see him. She seemed torn, wanting to look, wanting to hide. She said under her breath as others continued their entrance into cells, as far as she knew, he had no hope of ever not doing drugs. She’d lost touch, she said. She couldn’t imagine he might be doing OK.

But the young man’s face lit with joy when he saw her, and before we left that unit, it was almost as if a light went off for her too. Prison became about loneliness, about being apart, about the kind of pain that happens when families break up. It was no longer just about this space or this room or that hallway. Sofia’s brother, as close as he was, was nowhere near his sister. And would not be for a long time, perhaps never. She understood that and so did I.

When we exited Billerica that day, Sofia told the other students about her brother behind bars. Now, after walking through Billerica, and after being with Sofia, they understood why prison was not just a physical place, but a deep wound.

Dangerous White Dreams, #BreakingBad

Note from Susan: Nancy Heitzeg wrote a brilliant critique of Breaking Bad at Critical Mass Progress, and she graciously gave me permission to repost it here. Her analysis of racism and the glorification of / sympathy for media portrayals of white male drug involvement is right on target. The cultural logic seems to work like this: Black men who use or sell drugs are vicious criminals who should be locked up for a long, long time. Latinos who use or sell drugs are illegal aliens and/ or gang members who work for Central American drug lords. White men who use or sell drugs are brilliant capitalists or somehow sacrificing themselves for their families (for instance by taking meth to stay awake while working two jobs). Black women who use or sell drugs are crack whores who don’t deserve to have children. Latinas who use or sell drugs are naive simpletons manipulated by their macho drug-dealing men. And white women who use or sell drugs are mentally ill, passive victims who need doctors and therapists to save them. I see these themes over and over, not only on Breaking Bad but also on Orange is the New Black. Heitzeg’s piece is reproduced in full below.

Five grueling seasons of the record-breaking Breaking Bad have come to the conclusion fans hoped for and I feared. Yes, the aptly named Walter White – Mitty-esque middle class middle age High School Chemistry Teacher turned sociopathic Meth Overlord aka Heisenberg – is really a Good Guy after all, vindicated as few other “gangsters” before have been. All the loose ends tied up with some truths told, revenge and vindication all around, still the Smartest Guy in the Room.

bb1sDead, yes, as we knew he would be from the onset, but on his own terms. Walter White went out – not as the “monster” many of the cast referred to him as, as many viewers claim they think he is– but as a sort of Hero.

As Steve Almond asks in American Psycho: Why We Root for Walter White: “For those with the good sense to be distressed by this fact, the question remains: where does that leave the rest of us?”

Oh I know there are those who will object to this critique. “Lighten up  — it is just a TV show! And one that was well-written and acted at that.” Others will claim that there is nothing new to see here — that we have always been fascinated by various iconic gangsters and drug lords – most recently and famously Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, and Tony Soprano. “Same as it ever was”, they say.

But it is not. Walter White is, well unambiguously white, no ethnic identity attached – past or present – that once compromised “whiteness”. He “breaks bad” rather than being “born bad” or at least connected from the outset to criminal subcultures. He chooses, and he prevails, unlike the others whose ultimate ends serve as a cautionary tale.

Despite terrorizing both his immediate and extended family, despite subjecting his former student/partner to an array of psychological and physical abuses, despite leaving behind a mountain of mostly brown bodies , despite becoming a ruthless Drug Kingpin in the midst of a Law and Order/War on Drugs era –   Walter White goes out a Winner. Because that is what the viewers wanted.

And this, reveals more than just our penchant for gangster thrillers, it reveals, at rock bottom, our deeply rooted cultural construction and sometimes, celebration, of White Male Criminality.

Continue reading Dangerous White Dreams, #BreakingBad