On the Other Side of Prison Walls

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#86this: Main Menu

By Lindsey Smith

It was a beautiful fall afternoon with bright sun and leaves everywhere. I wanted to get an early start to avoid rush hour so I said goodbye to my husband and dog around 4 p.m. and headed for jail. Yes, I was on my way to state prison. Not to turn myself in, not to go to work, or even visit anyone. I was voluntarily speaking to a group of inmates.

As soon as I made the left-hand turn at the prison sign, my stomach immediately started churning. I saw the barbed-wire fences and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

A few months earlier, an old high school friend reached out and asked if I would be interested in speaking to inmates as a part of the prison’s impact program, a volunteer initiative that brings in speakers and creates dialogue to teach inmates the impact of their crimes. She had seen an article I had written in which I shared my story of being sexual assaulted and asked if I’d be willing to share my story. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes!”

Yet, here I was, sitting in the parking lot, wondering if it was too late to cancel.

I had some notes written down, but I knew I was going to have to speak from the heart, and that was terrifying. I put my phone and belongings in my glove box, locked my car, and headed for the security checkpoint.

My friend told me there would be about 17 inmates, all males, joining the session. They ranged in age and crimes. Some were juvenile lifers, and others will eventually get out. I wasn’t given details about their crimes, but I was told there were probably some inmates who had committed sexual assault.

The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle and I was given a spot in the front, all eyes on me.

One by one, the prisoners entered. Luckily for me, one of them had a puppy he was training as a service dog for another inmate program. I cuddled the pup to distract myself from all the men walking in, calming my fear as I pet him.

Then it was time.

I sat there with two crumpled up notes in my hand. I was shaking slightly, nervous about how I should be. I wondered if the inmates were judging me as a woman. I wondered if I was one of the only young women they’d seen for a while.

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t take things too seriously and that I can always defuse a tense situation with a joke. But this was jail. Would it be okay to crack a joke? Especially with someone who’s in jail? Or maybe, I thought, I should just be completely serious and almost like, “Fuck you, men!” But that didn’t feel right either.

I played the typical dance every woman plays—fear of being too harsh or not harsh enough; fear of my appearance being too done up or too plain; fear of being too funny or too serious; fear of being myself.

Panicked, I started off just telling my story, in great detail, about being date raped at a party when I was 17. I went through how it made me feel before, during, and after—as well as how my life is sometimes still impacted by it today. I kept looking down at my notes to avoid making too much eye contact.

To my surprise, those men sat there the entire 30 minutes or so, listening to me share my story and my pain. They didn’t cut me off, they didn’t make noise, they didn’t interject their own opinions. They simply sat there and listened.

As soon as I finished, still nervous, I looked over at my friend and said, “Yeah, that’s about it.”

I told her I was open to a Q&A session and so she thanked me and said a few words before taking questions. The first man to raise his hand thanked me and praised me for being courageous enough to speak to a bunch of men in a state prison about something so personal. Without hesitation, I said, “Well, I did watch copious amounts of Lock Up on Netflix to prepare,” to which everyone busted out laughing.

It was in that moment that we broke bread. I felt more relaxed and was able to now look at each one of them in the eyes. The break in tension created an open communication in which they felt safe to ask about the incident that happened to me and how it impacted my family and me as a woman.

During the Q&A session, I told them another story about how PTSD sometimes affects me in crowds and when I go out. My husband and I like to eat at a certain restaurant that requires us to walk past the entire bar to get to the dining room, and I often have to mentally prepare myself to make that trek. The seats are usually filled with young men watching sports, and it makes me uncomfortable. One day, I worked up the courage to go and as we got to the door, I mumbled to my husband, “Ah, I hope there’s not a lot of people there. I don’t want anyone looking at me.”

He quickly responded. “Why do you think everyone is always looking at you? Maybe they are just eating their food and watching the game.”

It hit me. “You’ve never been a woman,” I said. “You don’t know what it’s like to walk into a room and immediately feel judged for literally everything.”

I should note that my husband is a very progressive man. His career is dedicated to progressive issues. But in this moment, he was seeing through his own lens, from the male perspective. I didn’t get angry, but instead took advantage of the situation as a teaching opportunity, and we had an amazing discussion during dinner. Now he always asks how I’m feeling before we go into a space where he thinks I might experience anxious, tense, or uneasy feelings.

I told these inmates how something as simple as walking into a crowded room is a different experience for a man than it is for a woman.

One of the young men raised his hand and said, “You know, when I first found out I was going to state prison, the first thing I feared most was getting raped, because you know, you hear the stories.” There was a slight chuckle from the group, wondering where this comment was going. “But after hearing you,” he continued, “what I realized is that, for a woman, this is your everyday fear.”

Mind. Blown.

Several of them went on to share how they had girlfriends, wives, or daughters and had never considered the things women have to think about on a daily basis just for being female. We talked about it all, from the roles and expectations of women, to being a woman who doesn’t want to have children, to being catcalled.

This jail visit changed me in ways I never thought something could. I left that evening in awe of the men and how they gave me space, listened, and truly heard me.

When I think about the #MeToo movement, I often think well, yes, #MeToo. But, now what? I think it’s important to hold men accountable. But, then what? Should we send them off to an island to rot? Should we forgive them and move on? Our cause loses momentum once we run into these questions. As women, we are collectively holding onto anger and trauma from our own lives, and rightfully so. We want accountability, but once we get it, we either ghost or get angrier, and herein lies the problem. Where do we go from here?

I could stay angry about being sexually assaulted, and I could have felt that anger and resentment when I looked at those prisoners, but what purpose could that have served? Having those men provide me with a safe space where they could understand my perspective helped me make meaning out of my trauma: to imbue knowledge that didn’t previously exist.

This is where being able to have conversations with people who fucked up matter, why being able to talk about the tough issues is important, and how we can speak truth to men in power.

Creating spaces where all men sit and listen to women, truly hear their stories, and garner empathy for their experience can create connections. Now that men are being held accountable more publicly than ever, it’s important that we use this opportunity to create productive spaces for the female voice, spaces where we get to say #MeToo but also show how our actual lives are impacted by patriarchy, sexism, and the male gaze. This is not to say that it’s our responsibility to educate men, but creating space for meaningful conversations to happen within our institutions is a way to teach men that it’s their responsibility to listen, to understand, and to empathize.

Let’s use our voices to show we are angry, but let’s also use our voices to share what being a woman is like. We need to start creating opportunities in schools, in our communities, and in workplaces that are similar to the prison impact program. It is time for us to subvert the culture of violence that women are expected to navigate by letting women control the conversation about it.

I ended my talk at the prison by saying that I believe people can change. If I didn’t, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve changed so many times in my life, from being a kid to a teenager, into a young adult, and now as a woman. I hope to change even more, to continue to be better as a person, and I carry the same expectation of others.

 


Lindsey Smith is the author, health coach, speaker, and food blogger behind Food Mood Girl. Best known for her books Food Guilt No More and Eat Your Feelings, Lindsey enjoys creating recipes that not only taste good, but help improve your mental and emotional well-being. Yes, that includes cookies, too. Lindsey spends her free time hanging in her hometown of Pittsburgh with her husband and adorable rescue dog, Winnie Cooper.

 

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