- MONDAY POST - The Prison Tour

*Disclaimer: this piece contains offensive language in its final paragraph. 

This term I’m TAing an Inside-Out class, via U of O’s Clark Honors College, held at Oregon State Penitentiary. I’m still an undergraduate student, so while my new role feels natural after completing the Inside-Out instructor training and co-facilitating Book Club for over a year, it pushes me in ways that I haven’t yet been challenged as a teacher and facilitator. I want to reflect more on that, but not today, so consider what I’ve written so far an introduction to what follows.

This past Thursday our ‘outside’ students took a tour of OSP. We were treated to two knowledgeable, professional and warm tour guides, both OSP staff members. While I appreciate the importance of prison tours in terms of the awareness they bring about, and the conversations they initiate back in the classroom with ‘inside’ students, I’ve never enjoyed them. This is also a symptom of the fact that I’ve toured a few prisons at this point, so, naturally, their importance to me and the reaction they induce is very different from that of the ‘outside’ students in my class. I’m glad they toured OSP; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I felt tense all morning as we headed up to OSP, and then something really came over me when we stood huddled on the first floor of OSP’s E Block looking up at the five tiers above us, the upper three wrapped in wire like a chicken coop. The cells immediately before us were 6.5 x 9 feet, and appeared to be caves carved into stone, dark nooks at the back of an ancient temple where a candle spills light onto some forgotten idol. But there were men living in these spaces; these were men’s living spaces. One man, in a cell not ten feet away from us, slept, or at least pretended to until we went away.

I felt as if our presence made a zoo of the cell block because in a zoo, you look at the animals, and they look back at you, but you don’t acknowledge them in any real way, nor they you. I want to be clear and say that a prison is not a zoo, and prisoners are not animals, nor were they being treated like animals on OSP’s E Block on Thursday. I only mean to say that staring at a person who is locked in a cage, and not acknowledging him, makes an animal of him--makes him less than human. On the tour, I greeted every incarcerated person who was within a reasonable distance of me, not because I was gushing with immature sentiment, but because I simply wanted to say, with a smile or a greeting, ‘I want you to know that even though I’m on this tour I don’t think that you’re a monster or an animal.’

Our class eventually made its way to the Disciplinary Segregation Unit--commonly referred to as ‘the hole’--where incarcerated men are kept for up to 180 days for significant rule violations. These men, our tour guide explained, spend 23 hours and 20 minutes of every day inside their cells. As we stood at the end of one of the DSU tiers, a shirtless man pressed himself against the bars of his cell and watched us listen to our guide. He didn’t jeer at us or make faces. He only listened. Many of our group noticed an assortment of books that sparsely filled the shelves of a metal cart used to deliver reading material to DSU prisoners. The man in the cell closest to us observed that our attention had shifted there. What he yelled, though jarring, indirectly articulated how I feel about observing people living in a suffocating condition and not immediately doing anything to better it:

“You see the shit they gives us to read? Get us some good books to read, man. Until then, ya’ll can get the fuck outta here!”

What is your take on the prison tour? What are your experiences with it, and how did they contribute to the dynamic of your Inside-Out class, or your understanding of incarceration more generally? When commenting, please keep in mind that the Department of Corrections is a group of people that works hard to make these tours possible and also to keep the prison safe.

Alex University of Oregon