On jail friends

Early on when I began working with offenders, a student was talking about  her cellmate.  “She’s one of my ‘jail friends,’ she said.  “You know, we talk a lot here  and do stuff together like Bible Study, but I don’t know if I’ll see her after I get out.”

I thought of her comment this week as I was teaching a new class.  Every session it amazes me how the women in the group come together to support each other.  It’s not all wine and roses certainly.  I still remember a  lady in a previous class, who shrieked, “You’re an IDIOT!!!” when a  fellow student announced her life goal was to marry a rich man.   They didn’t speak much after that.

Room for humanity

At the same time, I’ve seen people from surprisingly different walks of life go out of their way to help each other.  Whether it’s encouraging someone to share a skill,  praising  a response to an interview question, or forcing a less motivated cellmate to take a class because you know it’s good for them  — it’s just not what I expected. I don’t know if that’s because of the way our culture portrays incarceration, particularly for women, where movies like “Born Innocent,” focus on what’s most salacious and brutal.  But the more I do this, the more I see these “inside friendships” as serving a critical role in many inmates lives.

“There are just so many good people in here,” one of my students explained to me.   “It’s like there’s no pretense.   Nothing to hide, so you can just be yourself.”

She and her classmates were quick to add that there were plenty of jerks and people you wanted to avoid.   But again, I found it heartening, that in such a degraded situation, people were finding ways to not feel so alone.

It reminded me of former offender Piper Kerman’s recent memoir, Orange is the New Black, which detailed her time in federal prison. Kerman, too, drew surprising solace and support from some of her fellow inmates.  Now that she’s no longer on probation, she’s  been in touch with some of her prison friends.  You can find her talking about the power of prison friendships here.

How about you?  If you’re an ex-offender, did you have people you relied on to help you survive the system?



Filed under offender health, women ex-offenders

3 responses to “On jail friends

  1. ed

    community comes together everywhere. human connection is an amazing thing to witness. just during my short time in jail, it was amazing to witness men from all different walks of life talking about their women, what they wanted to do when they got out. we were joined in the unity wanted to be free again. and yeah, there were jerks to be avoided for sure:)

  2. That is so true, and again, I don’t know why I expected it to be otherwise. But it has been a very hopeful thing to see.

  3. James E. Walker Jr.

    Absolutely. Whether a prisoner serves a long sentence, or a relatively short one, the incarceration experience penetrates to the essence of the individual. And whether a prisoner tends toward contemplation and personal assessment or more towards escapism, bonds that develop with other like-minded prisoners make for a more palatable prison experience.

    The lyrics to an old song say, “Everybody needs somebody sometime.” The prison experience drives home that message in a particularly acute way. Consequently, most prisoners develop a greater appreciation for relationships based upon mutual support–many of them for the first time in life. That is why many former prisoners feel transformed by the prison experience, in the sense that their connections to other people outside of prison take on more importance.

    When processed in this way, the incarceration experience changes lives in the most constructive way. For those who can’t, or don’t, come to terms with their shared humanity in this way, the incarceration experience leaves them truly incorrigible and socially dysfunctional.

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