Volunteering in Prison (Part 2 by Guest Blogger Maria)
Maria is a Cuban refugee who has been volunteering with Latinos in the U.S. for over 30 years and in prisons for 2 years.
Insights was a program developed by a social scientist whose theory was that if inmates developed better skills at judgment, self-knowledge, and self-presentation, they could better free themselves from the cycle of recidivism and become integrated into society in a positive way. My first problem was that I didn’t believe that Insights would work, because the changes they aimed at, I thought, would take months, not weeks. Also, it was very hard to get good statistics on the success of the program, because the only inmates who could enter were those who didn’t have extant “tickets” for bad behavior. The program was selective, so a control group could not be found.
I did, however, want to work with the inmates and this was a way to do it. And, once I took the Insights course myself, I found ideas in it I could use in my own life, and I also found out it was in many cases fun, and when it was too simplistic, I could still tell the writer was sincere.
I was already an experienced teacher of the Insights Program on the first day of this new semester. I really respected our coach, Gladys, another volunteer, and how she arranged the teaching time. Half the time we would work one-on-one, and half the time we met as a group, 1.5- 2 hours a week for ten weeks. When we were in group, all of us were “students,” both inmates and volunteers. In group sessions, Gladys was the moderator, and the rest of us participated as equals. Our group this semester included 4 volunteers and 4 inmates. My student would be a 35 year old who had been transferred to the minimum security prison, Daniels, after spending 12 years in the maximum security Big House, having almost served out his sentence. For our purposes, his name will be Pablo, and details are being changed so as to keep trouble from coming to anyone I mention. In anything significant, though, the situation will be described in complete honesty.
Pablo and I sat across from each other, and although he didn’t look very friendly, I didn’t pay much attention since I was focused on the introduction to Insights, which I believed had to be carefully done. I did notice that he had a Spanish accent, even though he had never been outside the continental U.S. His neighborhood was entirely Spanish speaking. Later, at the end of the course, when we held our graduation ceremony, two of my fellow volunteers remarked on the hostile look on his face that first session, like he was going to sit through the course but no one could tell him what to do. I had not noticed. Sometimes it helps to be clueless. One other thing I did notice was his name, P-A-B-L-O, tattooed like a bracelet, just below his wrist. Most inmates have wild ornate tattoos of dragons and pretty girls and snakes and their initials or gang stuff, really intricate. Pablo had nothing else but those five letters, 48 point Helvetica font with no decoration.
The next step was taking down Pablo’s biography. This is naturally important since the past colors how we develop our insight into our world. Pablo’s childhood and early adult years were the roughest of all the inmates I have met but one. He was abandoned at birth by both parents, and then adopted by his mother’s sister, Aunt Cecilia, who was a leader at one of the Pentecostal churches in his town. Aunt Cecilia beat Pablo in a systematic way and practically on a schedule. The irony of this is that the aunt’s was continually preaching from the Gospels, and Pablo well knew that beating children wasn’t condoned in that particular section of the Bible. You may imagine this led to his having a few issues with the God Business as he grew up. Pablo’s older cousin also lived with him, and brought alcohol home and taught Pablo to drink and forced him to get drunk at age nine, and then regularly. Later, he would bring Marijuana. His younger cousin, Isabel, escaped the beatings that the two older boys endured, but that would change. Isabel’s eventual suffering from this would become the source of trouble and anguish for Pablo who was very protective of her.
At about age 12, Pablo became old enough to get the hell out. From then on, as he put it, “I was raised by the streets.” The one bright memory is how he figured out a way to make a handball court in the projects. Pablo loved handball. This sport, played in Spanish speaking countries, was developed by the Basques. Pablo and I spoke often of the thrill of this fast paced game, since although I didn’t play, it had been a favorite of my father’s and he told me many stories as I grew up. This is where I really benefited from being from such a similar background as Pablo’s.
All the volunteer coaches and managers thought of me as useful in case an inmate was from a Spanish background and knew no English. The best part of working with a Latino inmate however (and this was true for both of us) was sharing our cultural heritage. My father would talk about how much he missed handball since he came to the States. Pablo showed how, with a little ingenuity, someone who had never lived in a Latin country could make handball happen in the U.S., even in the least likely circumstances, the inner city projects. They call it “Pelota,” which simply means “ball” in Spanish. My father had played with a small leather glove or cover, but Pablo played with his bare hand. This is impressive given that the ball is hard and moves very fast. There were handball courts at the prison, and all the guys played—regardless of background. As time went on, Pablo would give me details of the social aspects of prison handball.
Not long after he became a street kid, his birth mother, who had been a serious alcoholic, committed suicide. This distressed Pablo greatly, though he barely knew her. His father, who had recently returned from Puerto Rico, realized Pablo’s non-existent supervision and brought him to live with him. Pablo still spent all the time in the streets, because his father had to work a tremendous amount of hours to make a living. Several years later, Pablo’s father also committed suicide, and this was truly agony for Pablo. His father had killed himself because he had a rare kidney disease and had already lost one kidney. He knew he would soon lose his second kidney, and did not want to go on dialysis. So he took his life. What was hardest for Pablo is that some time after his father’s death, he found out about donating kidneys, and that had he known, he could have been tested and possibly saved his father. None of the medical caretakers of Pablo’s father bothered to tell Pablo or any other relatives about this.
By the second session Pablo began to tell me what his biggest frustration was with himself. It was his anger. I said to him, “Don’t they have that course here, the Danger of Anger to help with that?” Pablo immediately became angry. “That’s bullshit. They suppose to teach with a social worker, but the social worker she got transferred and then they got a guard teaching. He don’t know nothin, lazy bastard. That Danger course was a waste and I dropped it. They always do that, they fuck with the courses, and then they worth nothing.”
“So what do you about the anger?”
“I count to 150,” said Pablo. What popped into my head is how people sometimes say count to ten when angry. Pablo had big anger.
“Yeah, by the time I get to 80, I am blind. My anger fills and fills me til it’s up to my eyeballs.” Again I noticed the PABLO tattooed on his wrist. Was it there so that his name was the last thing people saw before the lights went out, if he takes a swing?
In one of the previous comments there was a question about the cost of the Insights volunteer program to the state. I will need to estimate, and I believe I am not far off. The state gives Insights $6,000 annually for advertising (usually small classified ads) and insurance for the program. There are about 30 volunteers, so $200 per volunteer. Each volunteer teaches 20 classes, 1-2 hours per class. So each of our classes costs the state $10 or so. Even if I were 100% off, that would be $20 per class. Can anyone tell by now that I used to be a cost accountant? Many times, C.O.’s teach similar classes. Take a wild guess as to what one hour of their time costs. And keep reading, because my good friend Pablo has something to say about the quality of our course compared to equivalent prison courses.
For Maria’s previous guest blog click here.
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