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3: the decorations we wear
are we invisible without them?
by candy green gustavson
pop culture

(This is the third in a series of articles. Candy is attempting to use metaphors to express life truths she discovers working with women "on the inside.")

Four months ago I heard the Deputy Warden tell the Author's Club he wanted them to plan and produce a Christmas show. Some of those who were at that meeting are--not dead--but gone: among them a tall, strikingly beautiful self-described "career criminal" who decorated herself with figure-enhancing undergarments--sold in her name by a friend on the outside--beneath her tight-fitting uniform; another is a woman, the mother of eight, who wears her uniform loose and baggy. I worked closely with her for many hours editing a manuscript. Along with her mother and sister, she was part of the sub-prime mortgage fraud. A 10-year sentence. Neither of these women was close to finishing their time. Where they have gone, I do not know. "It was time for them to go," is the only explanation.

This past week I saw the performance.

I felt a bit of festive excitement as I bundled up---here in the South we've been having cold and heavy rains that turned to snow as the precipitation moved on to the Northeast. I looped a scarf decorated with a bit of red and green in it around my neck. Jami, mentioned in my article "How Espresso Got Me Into Prison," and I drove to the prison together--she looked great in a gray tweed sweater dress and very hip boots. I asked her if she liked getting dressed up for the women; I was thinking her own four-year imprisonment and success after her release might help her serve as an inspiration. She smiled and nodded.

I wish you could have seen the two hour show--"Lights, Cameras, Holiday!" It took place in the large gymnasium. The chaplain's department had contributed banners which hung high above all the others. On the floor, domestic scenes had been created with colorful construction paper: a fireplace, a manger, even a star-shaped pinata hung in the air. Would it be full of goodies?

The participants sat in chairs to one side, in front of us. Some were in costume. Earrings made of spiralled and sequined paper hung from the ears of MCs who had also made bolero jackets from paper. On others, T-shirts were painted and color-marked with bright designs, slit up the back and tied in knots to give shape and style. One gal, a presenter, had created bright green pants from an unknown material. On her feet were high black platforms. Where did she get those, I wondered? Afterwards I would ask her. Her platforms,she told me, were made from four rolls of toilet paper, two rolls per foot. She covered them tightly with black construction paper and glued her own black slippers to the tops. You never would have guessed she was walking on toilet paper.

On the way home, I told Jami how the platforms were constructed. She wondered how the inmate had gotten ahold of so many rolls of toilet paper.

Now, Jami and I sat on folding chairs in a side section of the gymnasium with about 20 other visitors. We watched the uniformed women file in, a first group taking five rows of seats in a balconey high above the polished wooden floor. Jami thought these women might be part of a six-month program for first time offenders. If they complete this program successfully, they don't have to do their time. Their uniforms were an older kind, more worn.

Next came larger groups of women, in orderly lines, who filled bleachers on the main floor. A final group had to sit in three long rows on the floor. There were probably about 500 women in the gym; a first performance had been given the day before with the same number in attendance. The atmosphere was alive and anticipatory, like assembly time in school.

Standing in front of all the women was a lone, very tall, stern and long-faced woman. I could only see her profile and it was pretty menacing. She was dressed in tight black pants and highly laced steel-toed boots. All kinds of attachments hung from her belt.

"Who is that?" I asked Jami. The last time a woman had made that kind of scary impression on me was when I saw television footage of a Serbian woman fighter during the Bosnian conflict. But, this was America.

She wasn't a regular guard, I knew, because the guards dress more like the community police, in a navy and lighter blue uniform brightened by badges and insignias. This woman's uniform radiated--if it's possible--darkness. Suddenly, I remembered I was in a prison. The sense of excitement, the diversion and assembly of so many in the huge room had made me forget. This excitement, diversion and assembly must have been the very reasons for the presence of this new kind of guard.

"She's part of the Search Team," I thought I heard Jami say. "They can beat you up."

I had recently become aware there is a "Search Team." But, I had no idea what they looked like or that they were separate from the regular guards. The first I heard of the "Search Team" was when they had been asked to go through the lockers of all the Author's Club members a few weeks ago. Someone had reported the Author's Club ladies were, instead of writing, using the old computers we had been given to prepare appeals for other prisoners. It wasn't true, but a search took place anyway. Several of the women lost their writing in the process as it was deemed objectionable.

A big Author's Club meeting was held, actually two, before the problem got settled--all taking place in the midst of rehearsals for "Lights, Cameras, Holiday!" The last word to the Author's Club members from the Deputy Warden, who oversees the group, was, "If you think anything you have written could be confiscated, send it home." He encouraged them to accept what had happened and to commit to continue writing, saying a true writer will be able to write, even with restrictions.

I thought about this and decided it is true. Writing is a restrictive discipline--we are always silently observing rules and quietly breaking them, getting in and out of messes. A menacing presence stands guard making us cut things out--often things we really would like to hold onto.

Today I did some research on Search Teams in Georgia prisons. It turns out the words "Search Team" is used to describe teams which work as volunteers from communities. It's not Search but C.E.R.T. which stands for Community Emergency Response Team. All C.E.R.T. members must meet pre-established standards: a physical fitness test, firearms qualification, psychological screening, and a personal commitment to the team. They have to complete 40-hours of schooling. Training can include rappelling, use of distraction/diversionary devices, Tasers, submachine and shotguns. Units train once a month, carry pagers and radios at all times and try to maintain a 30-minute response time. They were made legal during President Clinton's administration. There are some horror stories floating around on the internet.

No wonder this woman before me was so scarily impressive.

During that Author's Club meeting a big discussion took place about what language, ideas and subject matter were acceptable. One of the strongest arguments I heard had to do with writing that had come about as a result of therapy. One woman's writing developed from courses she had taken in which she has been encouraged to write her experiences, as well as her experiences. She was afraid they would be confiscated.

Perhaps this is why Plato wouldn't have had any poets--the Greeks term for artists--in his Republic, his utopia! Those poets--writers, musicians, artists, that kind of creativity causes too much trouble, he said. Ironic because he was a poet himself. At this time of year and during such trying and transitional times, it's gotten me thinking about utopian ideals--audacities of hope, if you will--for the best information I found on C.E.R.Ts was posted on sites set up during President Obama's run for the Presidency.

A few days before this performance, during the last meeting of the year with the women in my "Becoming a Mentor" course, we discussed utopias in relation to B.F. Skinner and the Behaviorists. Skinner, who was born in 1904 and died in 1990, was the inspiration for so much of contemporary psychology, including behavior modification, in today's educational settings. As a young man Skinner wanted to become a writer, but felt he lacked the life experiences and he decided to study psychology. He is known, especially, for his work in showing that positive and negative reinforcement can affect behavior through something called "conditioning."

Later in life, Skinner wrote a science fiction novel, Walden Two, which was published in 1948. It challenged American society. His utopia was governed by Planners and Managers; it was not a democracy. People only worked four hours a day. The arts were promoted. Sorry Plato. Children were raised communally and according to behaviorism. Loyalty was to the community, rather than the family. There was no war, no competition, no social strife. Consumption was minimal. Rich social relationships were presented. Work was satisfying and there was lots of leisure time. A utopia. However, the novel's protagonist is emotionally unstable.

The Behaviorists always made me feel like I could become emotionally unstable if I embraced their thinking. I said this to these women who have been chosen to live in Faith and Character dorms. They agreed. They certainly know about the application of positive and negative reinforcement. None of us likes to know we are being manipulated. Something in us, the part of us where faith and character are free to grow, rebels against manipulation. Self-control is a good thing, a better thing. It's hard to achieve--sometimes it can take a lifetime--but good. (Christopher Kennedy Lawford's book "Symptoms of Withdrawal," which I am reading now, is good on this.)

So much of our world today has been affected by Skinner's philosophies and practices: the rapid response and rewards of the computer world, tests and surveys which give us immediate feedback, the effects of praise, the influence of the environment. What we rebel against are the ideas that our own thinking, our personal perceptions and our emotions can't cause our behavior to change.

So there I was, looking at the "C.E.R.Tified Amazon Lady" looking at the women as they took their seats. I hoped I would never have to encounter her.

Upon being seated in the gym, each inmate was given a number. During breaks between acts which required scene changes, a number was drawn and a prize given out. Clear baggies full of the little things that make life in prison more pleasant: shampoo, kleenex...little permissable things.

The educational setting where the gym is located was originally built for young men imprisoned before they had finished high school; it was to help them earn their GEDs. A few years ago the prison became a women's prison. Those who have worked with both the men and the women often comment on the differences: men are more quiet; they don't care as much about improving themselves; they are not nuturing, as the women certainly are.

One of the most warm and nurturing performances was by the Latin Club: a procession to the grotto under the pinata serving as the Star of Bethlehem. But, first stop in the journey was the reenactment of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary in Nazareth, then Mary visiting Elizabeth in Jerusalem followed by Mary and Joseph's trek to Bethlehem. The subsequent slaughter of the innocents wasn't enacted, but in the background was a soldier with sword in hand. The C.E.R.T. of his day? At the end, they all joined together--including the solider--to strike the pinata. Bright pieces of candy were thrown and hand-carried to us in the audience. It's seems quite miraculous that everyone got a piece...or two. I still have them in my purse.

Powerful songs were interspered with skits and dances. All the skits presented dysfunctional domestic or prison scenes; some poked fun at administration and brought howls and screams of recognition and hoots. My eyes went to the C.E.R.T. members, but then saw that staff sitting near me were laughing as well. In all the skits disaster led to prayer, prayer led to answers, answers led to redemption. All the endings were happy. Among the dancers was one who mainly used her powerful arms for expression as she moved across the floor in deliberate steps. Each push and pull, each reach and rise of her hands communicated her agony and joy to us. Some stood in the audience as a statement of thier support.

One simple rap piece gave me the line I remember most, "Two of our stories could save a nation." Two of our stories could save a nation. I wonder if our prisons reflect the cries of the soul of our country.

The final performance was an acapella song, Mark Lowry's "Mary, Did You Know?"

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM.

Oh, how we strive to become part of that great I AM--to know who we are and why we have been created. It can't be learned in a Skinner conditioning box.

Yesterday, a week after the decorations of "Lights, Cameras, Holiday!" were taken down, Jami and her husband, a dentist, returned to the prison to distribute 2,000 full-size toothbrushs and full-sized tubes of toothpaste--something they do every year.

These doors, these opportunities to decorate the world with kindness, don't open easily.

But, when they open, they open wide.


late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...

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