Well today I will be packing my car to drive south to my first facility on Sunday. It looks like I’ll be there for six days. This will probably be one of the most intense studies I’ve ever worked on.
I was in Dallas for four days for training. They really brought it home with details and addressed many of our fears and questions. There was also some tense hours of being serious about where we were all heading once we were thrust out into the field to work.
The USA has more people incarcerated than any other country in the world. We have, to date, over 2 million people in prison. That’s a lot of folks. Our system is overcrowded and understaffed. I may be tenderhearted in my daily life, but not anymore when it comes to my work. The first 2 years in the field I was on a medical study. I had to record people’s medical events over a time span of two and half years. It was difficult listening to the trials of people who didn’t have insurance and could barely feed themselves. There were children with rotting, aching teeth that couldn’t be taken to the dentist because the parents didn’t qualify for Medicaid. How can this be America?
On one study I followed the suicidal. People would attempt suicide and be committed for care. I had to go back to this person again and again in their rawest moment and record their story.
I worked with people that were dying and had people die before we could finish the study together. I would go home and fret because my heart would be breaking, but I had a hard nose leader who really let me have it every week during our conference calls. She told me to GET OVER IT! or I’d never make it as a social researcher. I had to learn to do the job and then let it all go once I got back in my car to go home.
So over the past 13 years I have learned to observe and listen and record, all without judgement and without the need to “save” someone. I developed and perfected a poker face.
As I am gathering my work supplies and preparing to transmit this morning to pick up my first cases I am going over in my mind what will be required of me emotionally. Yes, I already know that everyone in prison claims to be innocent. They will all have stories. What I will have to remember is the person sitting across the table from me may not be innocent. Surely they manipulated someone, they have victimized someone, to get in here.
I will be anonymous. If they ask me about my life I will give short answers, like “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember”. I will not engage on any personal or emotional level. I will smile, but I will not be too friendly. I will not stare. I will redirect the inmate back to the task at hand over and over until the interview is finished. I will not wear make up, perfume, tight clothes or scooped necklines. The only jewelry will be my wedding band. I will pull my hair back tight and high into a dowdy bun. I will not be attractive. I will not be memorable.
I will disconnect because this is not about me.
If I become uncomfortable or the inmate becomes violent during the interview I have the right to stop the process. At any time I can say “this interview is now over”.
The next few days, weeks and months inmates will become more human to me. Doesn’t that sound incredibly offensive? It is. But think about it. When people are locked away from sight, when we have stripped them of every social privilege, they become non-entities. They stop mattering to us on the outside except as a financial burden. After all, we pay dearly for them to be locked up. But the truth is that they are all human beings and I will respect them for being just like me…human.
Events happen within prisons that might not happen on the outside. Will we be unaware that we are releasing someone into our society that is ten times more fukked up now than when we imprisoned them?
So today I am preparing to do my job. I will gather information, I will record data and I will listen, all without judgement. I will keep in the forefront of my mind that what I am doing might eventually have a positive affect and make a difference.
I am the instrument that might make a voice heard above the cacophony of the forgotten and the dehumanized.
That’s all I can hope for.
I’m no saint.
I’m just a social researcher.