Full disclosure: I don’t know how to run a county jail. The truth is that I’ve never been a very detail-oriented person, and the idea of having to organize over 2,000 incarcerated people along with countless staff members, contract workers, and volunteers sounds terrifying to me. I am almost certain I’d do it wrong somehow, or at least that my solutions wouldn’t be ideal.
But here’s what I do know, as a teacher. I like having students in my class. I want to reach the most people possible, especially in an environment like the ACJ, where so much else is just red outfits and white walls endlessly. I want my best students to stay in my class and not be cut because the Women’s Drug and Alcohol program has been scheduled for the same time block as class time. I want someone to be ensuring that there are enough dry erase markers supplied to the four classrooms in our hall. I want to not feel so confused, to not have to constantly debate where I stand in the hierarchy of the jail—I’m not an employee, really, but I’m also not an inmate.
Full disclosure: I’m a white guy from the suburbs. I see jails on TV. I’ve flipped past COPS while channel surfing. I love Orange is the New Black. I’m aware of what cable news has to say about prisoners. But here are some things I’ve learned in the past few weeks: people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail will not see a single piece of fresh fruit during their time there. Unless they’re assigned to a groundskeeping detail, they will not breathe fresh air for the entirety of their sentence. Since women and men cannot be on the same floor at the same time, and since the women have the earlier writing class, my students will always be sent back upstairs before their three hours in the classroom are up. There are men in the psychiatric ward who scream, “Give me back my clothes!” They yell, “Classification: San Francisco, California, October 17, 2014.” I know these things because my students tell me. But because of who I am, I can’t possibly begin to understand what they mean.
I get to leave. I get to take back my cell phone, walk outside, remember sunlight. Things are always more saturated when I leave the jail. I think, “Fuck.” I think, “At least that’s over.” I think, “I want to take them out here with me, my five students.”
I’m not making much sense. I know that. Here’s the thing: the jail doesn’t make sense. The jail is a circus. The jail is walking on the moon. The jail is behind the scenes on reality television. The jail is something you heard about once in Spanish class or Japanese class or German class and you can’t really remember how it’s pronounced and you’ll probably never see it in person. We enter this insanity every week and talk to people who live inside it and pretend like the whole world isn’t insane for creating this situation in the first place.
I like to pretend; I’m a poet. I pretend that “count” doesn’t bother me, when my students are talked to like numbers. I pretend I have something to teach. Really I’m just a guy with a marker I brought from home hoping the water fountain will work when I press the button. “They probably keep those running the impress the teachers,” somebody jokes. “Like at least we get water.”
Here’s the thing: working at the jail is an us/them kind of situation. I’m not an employee sitting at a government desk. I think, “God, what are their lives like?” I hate working under fluorescent lights. I get it, kind of. And maybe I wouldn’t be any different.
But I’m also not an inmate. I’ve made my mistakes, and I don’t get taken from my family because of it, or made to wear itchy clothes and barter for shampoo and Ramen noodles.
I stand behind a line of red tape at the front of a classroom, a line which is supposed to say “Your choices have dictated that you cannot enter my space for my safety,” a line which is supposed to say, “We’re different” or “I’m scared” or “No.”
And I stand behind that line which is not a real boundary watching women type, photos of their kids stood up on their keyboards, Janelle Monae playing in the background. And I look out at the CO and he smiles, at least at me. And my co-teacher is another white guy. And somebody’s writing about coke. And tomorrow I’ll wake up and do work for my MFA and pretend for a second like I don’t know about any of it.
But we can only pretend for so long. Something has to come next.
-Dakota Garilli, Teacher