I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

There is something about a prison, like a police station, that makes you feel a little like a criminal even if you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m sure if you work there day in and day out that wouldn’t be the case, but as a visitor it’s hard to avoid the first time. The guards (both male and female) aren’t mean but they’re not, in general, entirely friendly either. The walls and floors are concrete. The doors do clang and buzz like the images in all of those prison movies and TV shows (and only open one at a time so there is never a way to run straight out). There are cameras everywhere, not so hidden if you know where to look. There are barely any windows, certainly not in the cell wings.

You catch glimpses of green through narrow windows: a quad, a tree, and in my last visit, a tipi for the Aboriginal inmates to hold spiritual sessions. All surrounded by concrete and brick. The offices are small and cramped. The inmates are uniform in their attire and in the way they look at you when they pass, in a single file line, led and trailed by guards. They aren’t necessarily unfriendly either, some even smile at you like random strangers passing on a street, but there is a recognition that you are an outsider and the outside is a place they aren’t free to go. I don’t even go into the maximum security wing (hence the relative freeflow of women going to and fro from different chores), but this is a maximum security prison and on my orientation tour I saw the cell blocks and the solitary confinement doors — from a distance.

I felt a little like a criminal that first time, but nothing I saw was a shock since I’d researched maximum security prisons and other things related to it for Cagebird. What shocked me the most were the details imparted by our liaison: that the women are often released back into the community (ie: directed out the front doors or onto buses) with nothing more than what they were brought in with, which means if they were remanded in the summer and released in the winter, all they had were their summer clothes to wear in a bracing Canadian winter; that many of the women don’t have basic items like toothbrushes, soap, or sanitary necessities upon exit; that some of the women haven’t even committed crimes worthy of incarceration (some are immigrants), but are kept here while the justice process works itself out, simply because there are no other places to put them. Overall it is a completely dehumanizing experience even if you are ‘one of the bad ones’, as our liaison puts it. But even she admits that the majority of women imprisoned (numbering in the hundreds) are not ‘bad.’ Some are mentally ill, most are only threats to themselves. Many are underprivileged; the reasons for these women to commit crimes have more to do with their socio-economic status than any inherent badness.

Basically I’m there (and other female volunteers) to assist a certain wing of inmates in recording stories for their children, after which our liaison mails them to the families. This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life, simply because of the (albeit limited) interaction with the women involved. Obviously we don’t interact with those in maximum security, but before beginning the program our liaison gave us a full tour of the prison which included all the cell wings, the medical facilities (vastly understaffed because of budget), the warden’s office, and the corridor that led toward the men’s prison (most of the interior of the women’s building is painted dirty Pepto Bismal pink and the men’s is painted blue, not for any real sexist reason but simply because easily identifiable colors were required so people passing from building to building would know immediately which one they were in — for safety reasons.)

Prisons and imprisonment are themes in my novels — entirely unintentionally. I like to think that writers develop ‘personal themes’ in their work, over time, and while I’m still very young in my career and as a writer, I can identify that the concept of being trapped in emotional, physical, and spiritual places is something that I love to examine in my stories. Maybe because it’s as universal a theme as it is intensely personal to one’s life and the kinds of prisons we may find ourselves in, either willfully or by no fault of our own. Meeting the women from this physical prison, many of whom are my age or younger (and a few who are even grandmothers), it didn’t take long to see that imprisonment in some form, for them, began early. It isn’t that they are all that different from me, despite widely different upbringing and opportunities; indeed, the sad and beautiful part of it all is that they are not so different from me, or you, or anyone. You see your own humanity reflected back at you when you sit down and speak with someone that you might think you can’t relate to in any way, where judgment, prejudice, and fear is set aside. And in a way I suppose that idea is a common theme in my novels too. We discover our own capacity as compassionate human beings by allowing ourselves to know people — without judgment, pity, or self-aggrandizement.

Without any sense of tired cynicism that tends to come on the heels of sentiment, especially in this day and age, I admit to being pretty touched at the opportunity to listen to these women read stories for their children, or grandchildren as the case may be, because it pares down this reflection to its most essential truth: people bond. People love. We might not understand someone or think we can relate to them in any way, but watching a mother tell her child a story via a digital recorder, because she can’t be there physically to do it, opens a window to connection. Sometimes the women impart some of their personal stories and it is a unique privilege to be let in even a little. I understand why it’s important for them to let their children hear their voices and to share stories that they love, or that they know their children love. Reading has always been an escape to me, as it is for many people, and as a child one of my earliest memories is of my mother reading with me. She instilled in me a love of the written word and the use of imagination, which encouraged my desire to seek out adventures through Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland, or Ponyboy Curtis. Reading reflects my own humanity back to me, and writing now does the same — all the grand and grotesque aspects of it, no stone unturned.

Storytelling has ever been a pathway to discovering truths, of taking ourselves out of our own limits, our own prisons, whether they be in location or in mind. It is one of the greatest things to be able to do and I rediscover this with every visit to a place whose sole objective is to lock people in.

Because I get to walk out.