walls to hold back the freedom
Saturday, February 3 2007
Today was the day of the Bard Prison Initiative graduation ceremony at Eastern Correctional Facility, which Gretchen and I would be attending with Doug (because Sharon wasn't a spouse of a professor or a prospective professor, she hadn't been invited). Eastern Correctional Facility is 25 miles to the southwest on 209, though the conversation on the drive down was completely mumbo-jumbo to my ear. Gretchen and Doug were talking about pedagogy and university procedures, a subject with a vocabulary every bit as esoteric as the one used in the discussion of database design.
Eastern Correctional Facility is a gorgeous building, looking like a hybrid between a castle and a minimalist gothic cathedral. It comes complete with beautiful copper roofing, a testament to a time when prisons had to be as impressive as any other governmental building.
Of course, much has changed since the prison was built. Once you're close to the impressive stone façade you can see the ugly additions, such as the sprawling low-rise entrance area built in modern times less tolerant of risk. Eastern is a maximum security prison, and getting in through the entrance area takes a lot longer than getting through airport security. We queued up with all the other graduation attendees, a mix of Bard intellectuals and prisoner family members from New York's many blighted urban areas. We walked through a metal detector that did nothing but cry wolf and so all of us had to be gone over with a wand. These metal detection technologies have largely supplanted the traditional pat-down (which I went through the only other time I visited a functioning prison, the now-defunct medium-security facility in Staunton, Virginia, on a school field trip). One poor guy had a USB thumb drive on his keychain and was told he couldn't bring it in because it was "contraband."
After getting a bracelet reading "VIP," passing through the metal detector, and getting a handstamp visible only under ultraviolet light, we were herded into something of an "airlock," though it was intended to keep prisoners, not oxygen molecules, from spilling outward. At the last ring of security a woman checked our names off a list, checked our bracelets, and let us pass through a metal gate in small groups. Behind her was a poster labeled "Look-Alikes" with photographs of all the guards who have inmates who resemble them, along with photos of those inmates.
From there on we were theoretically in the prison proper, where we could mingle with inmates. But all the inmates were kept out of the corridors we passed through on the way to an auditorium.
The auditorium where the ceremonies were to be held was exactly like my the one in my old high school, except for a bulletproof observation nest midway down the wall to the stage's left. The nest was made of thick plexiglass and had several small holes in it through which a gun could be fired if it ever came to that.
Once we were in the auditorium, we were among a select group of prisoners: those who would be graduating as well as others enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative program. Among the latter, some of whom had been taught by her in the fall, Gretchen was something of a rock star. They were delighted to see her again and some of that delight rubbed off on me, about whom they claimed to have heard "so much." Though they were all in the big house for serious crimes (mostly murder and/or armed robbery), they seemed like regular guys to me. Many of them are in the their 20s and 30s and have been incarcerated continuously since they were teenagers. I tried to imagine what it would be like to still be paying for the many stupid things I did when I was a teenager, something I was lucky enough to spend outside the ghetto.
Since prisoners are always at risk of transfer or being sent to "the box" (solitary confinement), the Bard Prison program offers associate degrees to lock in educational credentials at the earliest possible milestone. Though all the degrees being earned today were associate degrees, the commencement ceremony was a full-on production, complete with words from Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, the new commissioner of prisons, and a commencement speaker who observed that when M@x K3nn3r (the wunderkind who runs BPI) asks you to do something, sooner or later you do it. In this case he'd asked her to be commencement speaker and she'd initially declined.
Four of the sixteen graduates had been selected by their classmates to talk, and though Gretchen thought what they said didn't quite measure up to the speeches given by prisoner graduates at the Woodburn sendoff back in the spring, it was nonetheless an intense experience. The first speaker had to stop several times to keep from bursting into tears as he thanked his family for standing by him, a reminder of the stark reality of the prisoner's predicament for those who had momentarily forgotten that they were in a place where walls had been built to hold back the freedom.
I was most struck by what President Leon Botstein had to say. Out in the world, he said, the mission of education has been steadily corrupted by coming to be viewed as just a means to an end, the earning of obscene amounts of money. In prison, he seemed to be saying, education can be much more pure, harkening back to a time when education was a goal in itself. Now, he said, even religion had become a quick fix to achieve a selfish end. These days nobody wants to undertake anything that isn't easy. Botstein also spoke of the differences between a prison college graduation and one that happens at a campus on the outside. Here, he said, the roles were be the opposite of those at a conventional commencement. After the ceremony concluded, we, the speakers and audience, would be leaving, while the graduates would have to stay behind.
Gretchen had learned that Reign, one of her students, couldn't attend today's graduation because he was "in the box." After a few inquiries, she learned that this was because supposedly "bomb making instructions" had been found in his cell. But in the zero-tolerance environment of a prison run by suspicious anti-intellectual guards, this might only mean he'd been caught with a novel containing a description of a bomb as part of its prose. "Do you have any way of getting information from Reign?" Gretchen asked. "Oh, there's ways," said one of her former students, a massive hulk named Powerful. They'd even somehow gotten word about the time Gretchen had asked a guard if it would be okay to bring a cake in for her prisoner students. (That guard had taken such offense that anyone would ever want to do anything nice for a bunch of convicts that he had vindictively searched Gretchen's stuff as she was leaving, a breach of protocol.)
For the prisoners, today was an extra-special occasion. Though it seemed flavorless to me, for them the food was gourmet. Their children were running around underfoot, they could hug their wives and parents, and they could mingle freely with ordinary civilians. But eventually the guards announced that the civilians would have to depart. After many rounds of final the populations were separated and we were escorted to the outside. As we passed the various checkpoints we were repeatedly counted and our bracelets and hand stamps were examined. But there were no more metal detectors or intrusive inspections.
Later this afternoon, as soon as people could make the 45 mile drive, there was a party for Bard Prison Initiative people at a professor's rambling farmhouse in rural Staatsburg, some miles southeast of Rhinebeck. We (this time with Sharon) headed out to the party about an hour after returning home from the prison.
What a place! They had a permanent ruby-slipper-red bar in the living room and what might have been a functional jukebox. In another room, a hot woodstove kept out the arctic chill and various delicious finger foods could be sampled. And then, in another room, was a fully-catered meal featuring several deep aluminum trays filled with pork, chicken, or dayglow yellow cous cous. Most of the overheard conversation was in that incomprehensible collegiate lingo I'd suffered through on the drive to the prison. Sharon and I knew enough to just nod our heads and grunt at the right times. As long as we had a plastic cup full of wine we were content.
The house's cat, a grey striped tabby named Squiggles, proved unusually social, mingling in the crowd, and stretching out in the middle of pedestrian traffic on the floor. The cat would try to get eye contact with each approaching partier and would flee if she failed to get it. Where this strategy failed was when people came up from behind Squiggles, often failing to see her and tripping over her.
There also at least one toddler at he party. He needed his diapers changed at some point and his changing room happened to be in the room we were hanging out in. I don't care how good the food is, it doesn't go well with whatever that fragrance is that is applied to children when their diapers are changed. Later that same child could be seen sleeping on a couch in the same room as the glittery red bar.
At some point Gretchen set a modest goal for the evening: to get Doug to meet M@x K3nn3r, the Prison Initiative wunderkind whose name sounds like that of a super hero. But once that had happened and we were gearing up to leave, M@x told Gretchen that he needed her for something. That something turned out to be tequila shots, and (as we'd learned earlier today), once M@x decides he wants you to do something, you're going to do it. This might have been the first time Gretchen did tequila since some bad experience back in college. She was surprised by how pleasant it ended up being.
Somehow I ended up wearing M@x's tie, which his mother had made him and which he'd given to Gretchen to convince her to stay. I found myself hanging out with Doug and Sharon and an unknown woman on a couch, talking about how we knew (or didn't know) the person throwing the party. We said that we were there with Gretchen and that we were waiting for Gretchen to finish her networking. In an effort to convey who Gretchen was, Doug described her as wearing a patterned dress and having "large breasts." "But they're completely wasted on me," I overshared, "I'm not a breast man."
By now Doug and I had moved on to Scotch and we started wondering who among us was sober enough to drive. When Gretchen said that, owing to the tequila, she was sure she wasn't, I initiated a crash program to sober up. This involved many glasses of water drunk quickly. At some point Gretchen arbitrarily decided I'd be sober enough to drive once I'd urinated. It was a "line in the snow" that I crossed soon thereafter, literally. (I pissed that final glass of water into the snow out in the back.)
Once we made it home, everyone agreed that I had driven exceptionally well. Gretchen actually thought that I'd driven better than the way I do when absolutely sober.
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