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.
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?