The idea of choice and consequence are two that come up quite often in my prison writing workshop class.
Somewhere around 80 percent of the women behind bars have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused (or all three), as children.
One woman told the group yesterday that when a man touched her inappropriately at the age of eight, she knew something was wrong. She did not know the word for it, but she knew it was wrong. Another woman tells how at the age of five she knew to not only shower after her abuse, but to also burn her clothes. However, when abuse is someone close to the victim, they realize that this is family, and secrets of this sort are not told to the world. Many would rather take the abuse, than to take what ever it is that they think will happen to them if they tell.
For the women, sexual abuse sparks off a long cycle of degradation and self-loathing. They ask themselves "what did I do to deserve this?" And instead of answering their internal questions with a finger pointed at their abusers, they turn the abuse on themselves. And why shouldn't they? Do they not go to school, watch movies and televisions, and read magazines everyday that tells them to be coy, dress provocative, be true to their man (even if that means the uncle that slips into her bed every nigh smelling of whiskey). The contradictions going on in their young minds are deep, and when topped with the scarring of years of slapping, yelling, prodding, hurting, touching and ignoring, many of those who are abused do not seem to have the choice any more to leave.
We all know there are services out there. Sure one can call the local runaway line, talk to a counselor about the abuse going on at home, but the reality is the shame and fear get in the way. So they get attention other ways. They act out in school, they pick fights, or they go the other direction and shoot heroin, drink fifths of vodka under a bridge, or sell their bodies to the streets.
As one participant of the Bridging the GAP program so defined it: the bullet used to kill her attacker not only killed the man abusing her, it also killed all her abusers, her mother, her father, her siblings, the system...herself.
And while it seems as though females, in particular, are damn near programmed to eventually snap – for example the fact that women are set in a mold where we are told to be gentle, demur, quiet, complacent, and robotic; and those who exude any anger, aggression or passion (the way boys are programmed), and swiftly punished for stepping outside of the characteristics set forth by the founding values of this country – there are ways to stop the cycle.
The group is working on various ways to coerce these juveniles – who will sit in their detention centers and both read this anthology of writings, or watch the adults actually speak to them via media such as film. Some of the adults in the workshop speak to them only in questions, thereby allowing the girls to answer them for themselves. Some give explicit details of the realities of spending life in prison: the everyday cavity checks, the rapes, the violence, the mask, the loneliness, the monotony, the eventual loss of family and friends, growing old, missing the chance to have children, not being able to attend their own parent's funerals or their nephew or daughter's wedding, and living everyday under the scrutiny of the correctional officers.
Mostly though, the should-have, could-haves come up. Many say that had they been told of the realities of their actions, they would not have reacted the way they did. Instead, they would have found the strength to get up one morning, pack their bags and leave. They would have found the strength to tell someone; fight fire not with fire, but with humanity.
It is my contention, however, that this strength is increasingly hard to find in a world where we are lauded for being angels, and demeaned for being aggressive and strong minded. What do we call those women who stand up for themselves, believe their body is their temple – oh yeah butch, tomboy, and so on. Who the hell wants to be ostracized in a society where we are already marginalized?
The change for these girls needs to start with society, we need to eliminate the rules of the patriarch. We need to be ok with women’s power – and not just equal rights attained in the 1970s – and drop the requirements that cause both men and women to suffer from. But since this process is just that, an evolution of ideas, we must take the individuals and have them listen to older women – their mirrored images – and see that without the strength to move forward, they will forever be trapped in the life they are leading now.
It will not be easy. We are asking them to be stronger than the forces of the patriarchal society; stronger than their boyfriends who ask them to be the drug carriers; stronger than the father or mother or abuses them; stronger than capitalism that drives the need for materialism through the roof, causing many to rob, steal or kill for freedom from poverty. It will not be easy.
As I round out my fifth week in the program, the hauntingness of a life sentence seeps into my soul. Five times I have been searched, monitored, and so on, in order to visit with these beautiful women who are searching their selves each and every day. Five times I have sat next to women dressed head to toe in blue. Five times I have wondered what their food is like, how big the beds are, what it feels like to be given one roll of toilet paper for the entire week, how it would feel to never turn on the radio and freely dance and sing -- releasing emotions and energies that can only come out when one is alone. Five times is nothing to them.
Think about the young woman who came in at 25 years old, and is facing a natural life sentence, with no chance of parole. My five times turns into her approximate 18,250 times (that is if she lives until the age of 75).
That is a lot of time for consequence.