The information we get about prisons and prisoners on television is unrecognizable to me. I am a person who has spent hundreds of hours inside, so I know what I know first hand. In New Paltz and in many other small New York State towns, we are surrounded by prisoners. Within a 50-mile radius from New Paltz there are 18 prisons housing approximately 20,000 people.
Every year, 25,000 prisoners are released in New York State. If you believe that these men should be punished indefinably, know they will be released and we need rehabilitate them first, treat them with kindness and respect and do everything to insure that they can maintain a productive life on the outside with us.
Most of the men in Figures In Flight Five Modern Dance Company are murderers who committed their crime when they were teenagers or very young adults. This population has the lowest recidivism rate in New York State. Of 368 convicted murderers granted parole in New York between 1999 and 2003, only six were returned to prison within three years for a new felony conviction -- none of them for a violent offense.
A study in brotherhood
As I previously mentioned, my volunteer status prohibits me from writing about specific individuals or procedures at the prison where I have trained 20 modern dancers every Sunday for five years. Recently I was invited to speak about black history at the prison. This is what happened.
Approximately 70 men arrived in a jovial mood. I had planned to have them sit in a circle instead of in rows with me at the front behind a podium, but the size of the room and of the crowd prohibited this arrangement.
Many years ago I spoke on live television to ten-million people without so much as my pulse increasing by a beat. So I was surprised to find my hands shaking and my heart pounding before my speech. Prisoners have built-in to their culture an uncanny ability to detect the slightest bit of insincerity or guile, thus the pressure.
As one of only three white people in attendance, the only woman, the only Jew and the only free “civilian” in the room, I could not help but wonder how I got there! With this unanswerable question spinning around in my heart, I stood up with the men while they delivered a pledge. In blooming resonant voices they pledged to be good men.
The question of manhood occupies their meditations. They often ask themselves and each other, “What is a man?” I posed this question to my husband after the event and he had difficulty answering it. My husband is taking care of his wife and children, paying taxes, working and helping children in the literacy program at the college learn to read. He is living his manhood so he doesn’t need to define it. Not so for the prisoner. The prisoner’s manhood has been compromised by his inability to care for his loved ones as he believes a man should and does. Many a prisoner has left elderly sick parents who often die while he is locked-up, as well as wives and children, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters bereft of the support he could have provided.
Before each black history event at the prison, a prisoner delivers a testimony to a “person of power,” explains why that one was chosen and then adds his or her name in thick black marker to a large scroll hanging on the wall. It wasn’t until the dancer in F.I.F.5 giving the testimonial jokingly said that the other prisoners gently tease him about his “Jewish Mother” that I realized that he was talking about me. On the other side of the wall were hung dozens of hand-crayoned flags representing the countries each prisoner came from, as well as the countries of their ancestral origins.
At the podium I glanced at the list of people of power and saw the name S. Slotnick written beside the names of unknown as well as famous heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights movement, and I briefly had the thought that I knew what it must feel like to accept an Academy Award.
Many years ago when I was a freshman in college in West Virginia, I went home with the only black girl in the school to spend Thanksgiving vacation. She lived in a hollow in rural Appalachia. I was told that I was the only white person in the history of that tiny one street town to ever spend the night. There was only a store and a church amidst some broken-down dwellings. On Sunday morning the pastor asked me to speak to the congregation. That was the only other time I was as nervous. When I could not get the words out, the congregants spoke from the pews a chorus of, “It’s okay, take your time” and other encouraging and loving phrases. That memory burned bright as I began my presentation.
“Just be truthful” one of the men whispered to me before I began, and I was. I prepared a lot of material, reread Howard Zinn’s chapter on civil rights from his book A People’s History of America. I came armed with the stories of white heroines of the civil rights movement and just in case I went mute, I brought Alvin Ailey’s Revelations on video tape. I figured I could always talk about black dance. But I only used a fraction of what I prepared. I spoke of growing up in Westchester and the influence the African-American sleep-in maids, (referred to no matter what their age as “girls”) had on me. I told the story of how I met Langston Hughes, the poet, at a gathering my father took me to in Harlem when I was eight years old. I talked about witnessing racial discrimination in school when I was a child. I read a piece I wrote for this newspaper about my friendship with Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis that listed many of the events in black history which occurred during our lifetime. Then I wrapped it up, shut up and gave the prisoners, who always need to talk, a chance to take the podium and share their memories of racism and injustice.
I was struck by the diversity in the group, which was the overall theme of the black history event. There were educated men with advanced college degrees, immigrants from mostly Hispanic countries, older men who were raised in the South, young men from the inner cities, Muslim men in crocheted caps and stately fellows with long dreadlocks.
“Take your time. We’re with you,” a prisoner shouted to his friend who was breaking up in tears while describing how his parents had tried to shield him from the realities of segregation in the South when he was a child so that he could grow up with his rightful share of self-esteem.
Then it was over and cookies and coffee were served. The atmosphere was very festive and friendly, like a holiday with lots of good cheer.
In another room in Woodbourne, a Bard College prison initiative professor was delivering a lecture on existentialism to the Bard College student prisoners. One of the dancers missed my talk because he is enrolled in the theology program meeting at the same time.
I met a woman in the prison lobby who was conducting a workshop in strategies for reentry into society also the same evening.
I thought, as I drove home, that the prison this night was an example of the justice of love, forgiveness and second chances bestowed by a compassionate community of prisoners, providers and forward-thinking administrators. I remembered this quote from Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” How can we expect men in prison to behave justly when they are freed if they are treated unjustly in prison? How can we expect that from anyone?