Woodbourne graduation, 2008
Saturday, June 7 2008
This morning Gretchen and I carpooled with one of the other professors in the Bard Prison Initiative program to the graduation ceremony at Woodbourne, the medium-security state prison in Sullivan County. There were actually five of us altogether in the small Subaru, although one of us was only two years old.
It's an hour long drive from Hurley, so there was lots of time for conversation. Our driver's husband rode in the passenger seat, and he told us some amusing stories about his job as director of Bard's Trustee Leadership Scholar Program (where the Bard Prison Initiative got its start). Students come to him with proposals and he has to either approve (and fund) them or reject them. An example of a project he rejected was a plan to dig holes all over campus as "an existential bit of theatre." A wacky project he approved was "The Bard Space Program," an elaborate performance that involved the building of a space capsule, the construction of a set of space suits, and the development of a logo (informally built around the slogan, "Fuck NASA."). The Bard Space Program culminated with a "launch" that involved the incineration of a magnesium engine block.
Today's graduation was held in a large prison yard behind the prison complex. Security was generally lax, at least by Woodbourne standards. We were made to check our keys and our money, and then we were lightly wanded for metal before being sent off to the yard. A couple of gates served as a sort of "air lock" to keep prisoners from escaping. And then we were in. We didn't make it far before a group of prisoners circled me and Gretchen and started giving us a prison-style beat down. No, actually they were there to say hello and to each express how very much they miss Gretchen, who hasn't been back to Woodbourne for six months. One of them even apologized for how much of a dick he'd been back in the day. Many of the prisoners had met me during my visits to work on the computer lab, but those who hadn't were delighted to see me, going on and on about all the things Gretchen had told them about me. I'd seen this sort of thing before, but I haven't stopped being impressed by how much of a rock star Gretchen is with the inmates.
The pre-ceremony conversations and introductions went on for awhile, and too much of it happened out in the sun, which was hot and unqualified by even a wisp of cloud. Eventually, though, we found our way under the tent.
After about an hour, the ceremony began. A year ago I'd been to the Bard graduation at the Eastern Correctional Facility, and, aside from being outdoors, this one was similar. For the first time ever, though, in addition to Associate Degrees, BPI would be handing out Bachelors Degrees. The ceremony definitely had its dull parts, particularly when Bard President Leon Botstein droned on a bit too long about the lessons to be learned from the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos of Gulliver's Travels. But the four student speeches all proved to be excellent examples of uplifting oratory, and when the individual graduates were called up for their diplomas, it was moving to see their respective families explode into small standing ovations. Here the graduates were, locked up for years in prison, with only occasional and closely-scrutinized visits from their families, yet for many (if not most) of them, I was witnessing something that, up until now, was the high point of each of their respective individual lives. It was like watching the opposite of an execution.
After the ceremony, we all queued up for buffet food, which proved much better than expected, given both the experience at the Eastern graduation and the fact that this was a prison. I was event tempted by the thick breading on the chicken and (despite Gretchen's scowling) took a piece, though it wasn't anywhere near as good as the lasagna. There were no vegan options for Gretchen, so even as I dipped into carnivorism, she dipped into lacto-vegetarianism. It struck me recently that modern absolutist dietary rules (such as strict veganism) come more naturally to someone from a Jewish tradition, where absolutist dietary rules are the norm. By contrast, I come from a tradition (such as it is) where dietary choices were viewed more holistically. In this world view, exceptions make little difference so long as habits remain generally healthy.
On this exceptionally hot day in early June one of the saving graces was the Woodbourne microclimate. The prison sits atop a knoll and is constantly buffeted by winds. Even though the air was largely stagnant throughout the region today, winds blew reliably across the yard and through the tent. Indeed, the fact that the Johnnies on the Spot had been placed upwind from the main tent proved somewhat unpleasant once we'd sat down to eat our lunch therein.
The wind proved problematic for many of the women who'd come to today's ceremonies. I saw more than a few battling to hold down their skirts and dresses against the updraft, though I only caught a glimpse of one pair of panties (they were red). I know at least one woman present at today's festivities was wearing a dress and no underwear, but I think she might have made it through the day without incident.
Later this evening, after Gretchen and I had been returned to Hurley, we set out for the after-graduation party at a gorgeously-landscaped house north of Rhinebeck. As with the other post-graduation BPI party I'd attended roughly a year ago, this one was only attended by BPI staff and faculty. For obvious reasons, there were no students, but there were no family members of students either. The BPI crowd is a fun bunch, and many great conversations were had. There were also a five or six little children (ages two to five) running around. They reacted to the heat by stripping off their clothes and squirting each other with water. None of them seemed to have any hangups about being buck naked. The adults joked among themselves about how they'd describe this party later to friends: "There were four or five people who were running around totally naked, and it was still daylight. They weren't even drunk! You can imagine what the drunk people were doing!" Sadly, though, there was no hard liquor at this party, so it didn't quite reach the level of craziness that the Eastern BPI graduation reached last year. Indeed, we both would have passed a breathalyzer test had we been stopped on the drive home, something I can't say about last year's drive home.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next