What we expect when we give so little

Posted: October 23, 2008 in prison, general, teaching
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Ken Lamberton writes in Beyond Prison Walls: Essays from Prison, “Visiting your wife erases your fences but raises hers. When you’re with her you understand what it means to be touch-deprived. Her eyes look past you; her kiss is perfunctory” (97). Reading this passage from Lamberton’s essay “first time” on my bus ride home from work this afternoon got me thinking once again about the volunteer training I attended at Monroe this past weekend. The portion of the training that covers physical contact with the inmates was not different from the previous volunteer training I had gone through, but somehow it struck me as more complicated this time around. I’m certain the complication comes from the fact that I have gotten to know the men in the group by now, and I have been reading the writing of prisoners in nearly all my spare time and those two things combined have increased my understanding of their humanity and their struggle to maintain it behind the walls. Perhaps these “rules” and “policies” of the correctional system (a term that ought to be used loosely, I think) are not ones, in their entirety, that I believe in now that I am a part of the system to which they apply.


I have been struggling with whether to write about this topic of touch in prison or not, and if to write about it, then how. The trainers go through such efforts to make volunteers afraid of any physical contact with an inmate that you begin to second guess yourself. Did the guard see me touch that man on the shoulder as I encouraged him in the paragraph he was writing? Am I sitting too close to this man? Should I not have smiled? Is my praise of his writing too easily misconstrued as flirting? They are alarmist enough that all weekend I have even been thinking – can I write this?


There’s a reality about being a female working with male inmates. I get that. For months, years, sometimes even decades these guys are allowed no intimate contact with women (or very limited contact depending on certain privileges earned or, in a worst case scenario, via inappropriate relationships with guards or volunteers). So, I get that their enthusiasm to see me from week to week may not only come from their enthusiasm for our program, but also from the simple fact that I am not another man. I get that it’s a bonus for them that most of the volunteers in our program are female. Helen Elaine Lee, my mentor this semester, has asked me to consider this fact, even write about in my essay. How do I feel about being a female working with a male inmate population? In some ways I feel safer than I do in a bar full of strange men, any one of which could follow me home. In some ways I feel like it’s no different than any relationship between any male and any female (or for that matter between any two adults of either sex – come on, it is the 21st century) where one or the other may feel an attraction that the other doesn’t share and like adults you have to appropriately work it out. Ultimately, however, I feel like it’s my job to recognize the particular circumstances of prison and the reality of those circumstances on these men. Severe deprivation of any kind, plus the significant amount of time they have to think about all that they are deprived of while on the inside means they likely do think about, even dream about, the females who are in their lives – the guards and volunteers. Can you blame them? Given this reality, must I consider then the men primal and dangerous in all cases and thus fear them? Must I persecute them for the fact that they experience the most basic human need for physical contact, just as I do? I simply cannot fear them in this way. One, because such fear would get in the way of the work I am trying to do with them. Two, I’m in the rare position of knowing these men as more than their crimes. I don’t excuse their crimes, but neither can I, at this point in the experience, toss out their humanity because they committed them either.


The trainers go to great lengths to dramatize the handshake you are allowed to give an inmate – a handshake being the only approved physical contact between volunteer and inmate. Imagine that – a handshake as your only form of allowed physical contact. A handshake to get you through the months and years of your sentence. What is it I am supposed to be afraid of conveying exactly if I touch a man on his shoulder, or policy forbid, give a man a hug who I might have known for years when I learn that he has finally won release, or even succeeded at something smaller, such as publishing his first piece of writing. Our goal is to help rehabilitate these men, but we are not to treat them as human?


Even with their own families there are strict rules around physical contact — one kiss from a family member, on the cheek, at the beginning and at the end of a visit. That’s it. You can’t even sit for a half hour and hold hands with your wife. Imagine.


How then to respond to this policy of no physical contact? Like with all things in prison – big sigh here — you follow the rules regardless. This doesn’t mean you have to like it, or agree with it, and it doesn’t mean I won’t continue to write about my differing opinions with the system here, but at the end of the day, if I want to keep going to Monroe, I will sign the piece of paper that says I understand and will abide by the rules about physical contact.


It’s complicated. I get it. Is it fair to hug a man who has had no physical contact for so long? Maybe not. But is it fair for a man to walk out of prison after years of being deprived of healthy, compassionate, responsible physical interactions and expect him to easily succeed in his relationships, even in his daily, mundane interactions? During the training I kept thinking about all the ways I experience physical contact in my daily life – a vast majority of it not sexual in nature. I hug a friend to say hello. I kiss my father on his forehead when I leave after a family dinner. I touch a friend’s hand when she cries. It is one way to show a connection to others. Imagine being deprived of that, of having only a stiff handshake to communicate joy, admiration, sorrow, empathy or any other emotion. Isn’t it true that infants, deprived of touch, do not thrive? Why would we think this only applies to infancy? The policy doesn’t speak of rehabilitation to me.


To be touch-deprived, as Lamberton calls it, seems to only take an inmate further from the very society he is expected to one day integrate back into. Does one then have to ultimately face the question – does society actually want these men back? I think so.

  1. You are right to think ‘correctional system’ is a misnomer.
    Be proud about the thing you do and don’t be concerned about things like ‘touch deprived’, it is not your remit to influence such things. Your mere presence will be like a breath of fresh air to most inmates. Be happy about that.
    Some prisons allow conjugal rights visits, others don’t.Some prisoners are lucky, others not so lucky.
    Sorry I can’t spend more time on this, but I enjoyed your piece.
    Best wishes,
    Chris Chance.

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