Problematically Present at Prison


Persons Incarcerated in the US from 1980 – 2013| info from the Bureau of Justice Statistics| Graphic by Mary Anne Porto ’16

Here’s a term from Social Psychology class: cognitive dissonance– conflicting ideals or thoughts, such as my belief before the Social Psychology class trip to prison that what we were doing seemed sort of unethical, which contrasted with my belief that the trip would be worthwhile and informative.

On October 14, about twenty-five Loomis Chaffee students boarded toaster buses and left for the Osborn Correctional Institution. Set aside your judgmental heuristics (another psych term meaning those mental shortcuts you use to make predictions based on what you’ve heard of); this trip was not like the Stanford Prison Experiment or Scared Straight; we were not test subjects or “at risk youth.” Instead, our objective was to evaluate the effectiveness of a program run by one of the recreational officers that encourages young people to stay out of trouble, in hopes that they won’t return.

Before the trip, Mr. Usman, who lives on the LC campus and works at a Connecticut prison, told us that “looking at things from a multidisciplinary viewpoint is important, instead of the binary impulse of ‘good or bad.’” He was talking about the inmates, about not letting TV shows or other media about criminal justice affect our perceptions of these people, but what this exhortation really targeted was the idea of the prison system itself.

I had my hesitations about the trip, not out of fear or out of concern for my safety, but because I had learned from the news that the prison system is so irreparably screwed up. I feel like a fairly politically active young person; I read the news everyday and try to make informed decisions and discuss my opinions with people. There’s a comfort in being able to write about a cause with some sense of certainty, in dissecting an issue with a solution in mind, that there isn’t when thinking about prison reform. My greatest discomfort with the trip before going was that I would be touring a prison with obvious problems (overcrowding, recidivism, the lack of facilities for mentally ill inmates) and then not be able to provide any alternatives. I wouldn’t even know where to start. But the irony is this: thinking that all problems are personally solvable is a disservice to the problems themselves.

In an essay by Leslie Jamison in The Empathy Exams, Jamison goes on a “Gang Tour” led by ex-gang members who share their previous experiences and how they’ve “turned their lives around.” She’s uncomfortable for most of it because of her privilege, and the fact that she’s from such a different world, and she feels like she’s exploiting it in a way (searching for something to write about, trying to find a “takeaway”).

She writes, “The unease of the tour is not the discomfort of being problematically present…so much as the discomfort of an abiding absence…The truth of this place is infinite and irreducible, and self reflexive anguish might feel like the only thing you can offer in return. It might be hard to hear above the clattering machinery of your guilt. Try to listen anyway.”