Monday, March 27, 2017

We are All the Public: More from the Writers and Artists of San Benito County Jail


“In August 2015, a mentally ill inmate was beaten to death and another inmate attacked, allegedly by three guards now facing murder charges. Two other jail guards face assault charges in a separate beating incident, and the former head of the correctional union was fired after exchanging racist texts with other guards. The county also has been grappling with two major lawsuits filed by prison rights advocates over conditions.
But the jail break is the first problem to pose a direct threat to the public’s safety.”
––Tracey Kaplan, Bay Area NewsGroup, from an article about the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California

Waking up November ninth to news of Trump’s win was irrefutable evidence I neither knew nor understood my country. While I prepared for my weekly writing classes in the San Benito County Jail, this painful awareness grew inside me. Yet I knew my own pain would not be helpful in the classroom.

On a typical Wednesday, students may be integrating a new roommate into their pod, watching while he or she undergoes detox, and worrying about their own children and families on the outside. It’s stressful enough without having to worry about the teacher’s distress as well.

The jail is set on the outskirts of rural Hollister, California between an apricot orchard and fallow brown fields, a pastoral, eerily calm location. In fact, the small single story jail is so diminished by the grand scale of its surroundings––the wide flat valley open on two sides and the Diablo mountains rising up along the East––that from the outside the squat concrete jail can seem an almost comforting place. Indeed, as far as I know, San Benito’s jail doesn’t suffer from the blatant violence and racist attacks that plague larger institutions, such as Santa Clara’s, outlined in the epigraph above, the one that in its last paragraph excludes both racist guards and incarcerated people from the category public.

Nevertheless, once inside San Benito’s jail, all sense of comfort fades. The thick walls, low ceilings and windowless hallways trap sound, so only the ventilation system and clanging of distant doorways can be heard. By design it seems to squeeze out any sense of beauty or hope.

The misunderstanding captured in the newspaper story, had me thinking about my own students and the damage we allow ourselves to do when we see them and their keepers as separate from our community rather than a part of it, something I feared would intensify under Trump.

I knew, however, that some in my classrooms would be celebrating Trump’s win (I knew because in previous weeks they’d let me know they were fans) while others might be experiencing something akin to my own fear and despair. Some had parents and family members who lacked papers. In a few cases, it may even be the student themselves who were without legal status, which meant they waited behind bars with no clear sense on which side of the border they might end up upon release.

I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I’d do to address these two poles. After all, the men and women of E, F, and C pod live with each other 24 hours a day. Why bring up all the complicated and vastly different reactions people forced to live together in a dark enclosed space might have about the President-elect? My classes were only 70 minutes long, but whatever arose in those minutes would be in the air long after I was gone, returning with each student to the pod where he or she lived out most of each day.

On the one hand, I knew my students to be remarkably adept at getting along with even the most difficult people in the most trying of circumstances. Why I’d witness students extend compassion for those in the midst of an angry detox or long loud arguments with walls, and they’d done so with an ease that had me questioning the ways I disconnected from people whose suffering is on public display simply because there is no private space left them.

On the other hand, amongst this very same compassionate group, I knew there was one especially bright and generous writer who liked to scrawl Nazi insignias inside her writing folders and another older woman who called out allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood in the sweet sing-song voice of a child.

Of course, these white women explained to me, their Mexican-American and Chicana cellies were exempted from any hate. “These girls are my sisters. They know that,” said the first while the other nodded and continued her sing-song tribute. “Aryan brotherhood! Aryan brotherhood!”

The darker women beside them nodded in affirmation, likewise declaring sisterly affection, an affection that ascended any category outside the classroom itself. “This is our family,” someone said. “Yes,” said another. “We love each other. We’re family in here.”

I watched the moment unfold in awe. Jail culture is distinct and I don’t always understand or even recognize all its codes. Yes, there is often this unity and also everywhere there are teams.

One day there’d even been a few excited moments when someone discovered a bit of Sureño graffiti ground into the plastic tables around which we created our poems. It stuck out because Hollister’s gangs mostly affiliate––loosely or otherwise––with the Norteños, the Sureño’s sworn enemy. I tried to determine if the anonymous graffiti artist might be any danger from anyone in my class, something I would feel compelled to report to one of the guards. It’s in just these kinds of moments I feel in over my head.

Still, every time I get underneath such a moment, I see only people behaving more or less as I might or anyone I know given the same context and under the same constraints, which is to say I’ve never even heard a threat of violence in the jail. I’ve only ever witnessed the careful maneuvering of people trying to assure themselves a bit of peace in an environment where that seems scarce. This leads to exactly the same complicated entanglements that develop between myself and my colleagues on the main campus. An overall cultural devaluing of teachers, forced educational reforms, and inequity between full and part-time faculty and staff sometimes manifests as employees turning on each other in simple and charmless ways.

Jail reminds me, pretty much wherever you go people act the same.

The day after Trump’s victory, the women of E-pod extended me the same warm greeting they had before the election took place. It made me feel I needn’t fear discussing it, and my tongue loosened. Because the E-pod discussion went well, I brought it up again with the men and women of F- and C-pods too. Better to address whatever strong feelings might be in the air, I told myself, rather than pretend they didn’t exist at all.

Some students had yet to hear the news, but those who seemed most likely to abhor the President-elect’s agenda demonstrated less dismay than I had upon hearing Trump won. It was as if because their lives could hardly get any worse than they were at the moment––locked up with limited news of their families (see “Letter to the Captain” in I’m Somebody’s Sunshine for more on this), it hardly mattered who became president. These students shrugged their shoulders and signaled a willingness to move quickly into the meditation and freewriting portion of class.

The Trump fans, however, were gleeful. They spent a few moments in open celebration, talking about all the exciting changes the new president would bring. Maybe it goes without saying that each of them, like me, was white. They talked about building a wall while I wondered quietly what, if anything, Trump might do to worsen already horrible conditions for addicts, the mentally ill, and poor and homeless people––the very folks most likely to end up incarcerated in San Benito County Jail and join writing class as far as I could tell.

Later, one of Trump’s biggest supporters ended up in tears. This most enthusiastic of writers was introduced to white nationalism by a loved-one who was himself was an undocumented immigrant of European descent. “But what will happen to him?” the writer cried out upon finally recognizing a Trump victory might have a direct effect on their family.

“I don’t know,” I said. “At the moment, we can’t know.” This was a student I loved, a serious writer who creates space for others to be brave and greets their efforts with a lot of fervor and support regardless of anyone’s ethnicity or creed.

Watching the tears flow, I lost all desire to punish or blame any particular group as solely responsible for Trump’s win. All of us, we’re in it together, I realized, from beginning to end no matter what side we came in on. After all, it’s false categorization to think anyone will remain unaffected in the coming months. Through its grand distortions hate eventually destroys the hateful as much as it does anyone we hate.

The writers and artists of San Benito County Jail have taught me a lot about love and its other name understanding, which is how author Tich Nhat Hanh names it. He provided I’m Somebody’s Sunshine epigraph and inspiration. To understand someone first we must be willing to listen.

When the public spoke this election what did I hear and what had I been missing? Of course, the public doesn’t exist only in one place. It exists in all the places at once––voting booths and board rooms, street corners and army bases, churches and jails, and so our listening must go everywhere too.

To me it seems an act of violence to include some people in our understanding of the public while automatically excluding others. Whether behind bars or walking the streets, we are all the public.


I encourage you to keep this expansive definition in mind while reading I’m Somebody’s Sunshine. Here you will meet your enemy, who is just as likely to be your friend, and in so doing, are likely to meet parts of yourself.

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