With the school year starting again, I’m seeing my students for the first time since March. Most of the students I saw last spring have either exited the jail where I work to return home or have been sent “upstate” to prison to continue their sentencing. But there is a handful who are about to exit into the world for the first time in 2020. I have no idea how to prepare them.
It’s one thing to say, I’m gonna write an article for future generations to learn about COVID, and it’s another to send people into this moment who’ve had limited exposure to the outside world. They’ve been in an iron-barred bubble for ten months. I’m the first person they’ve seen in the flesh who isn’t in a uniform in seven.
We’re meeting in smaller groups than usual, and I’ve spaced my room apart as far as I can and still be able to hear each other speaking through our masks. I’m trying to explain that this is what it feels like now, but they roll their eyes. At the same time, they know people who’ve been sick or died. So they don’t know.
We who have been in it have gotten used to and a bit complacent with this year. I forget my mask and have to walk back to my car all the time. I don’t remember to wash my hands when I first walk through my door and must run to a sink. I forget to double-check the arrows on the aisles in the grocery store and catch myself walking down the wrong way. The same is true for letting both the spoken and unspoken racial tensions leave my mind. I let the names of those who were killed exit my thoughts.
This is a tough one for my students who have strong feelings about the police and justice system, but also the racial divide in incarceration is strong. The divide of a lot of things is strong in jail. As my students prepare themselves to go to prison, they hunt down the names of people they’re connected to, so they have a friend. They mentally prepare themselves in so many ways, and little has to do with confinement. I had my first student going to Federal last year, and he told me that he would need to find not just other people who looked like him but were from his area as well. I didn’t know what to say then either.
How do I remember all the things we’ve gotten used to to a point where we’ve forgotten? How do I explain life right now? That as weird as school has been for them; it’s been even weirder for their kids. That their incarceration may not be their barrier to employment. That politics is on such a heightened alert you just can’t anymore. That we now live in an America without Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I’m trying to track down which social services are seeing people in person, which ones are online, and where to find public computers they can use to fill out forms. I’m explaining how everything needs an appointment now. They may need to make a reservation or get takeout from that restaurant they’ve been drooling over in their sleep. That our local secondhand shops are still closed, and I don’t know where to send them for clothes.
So what do I tell them that’s positive? We talk a lot about hiking and nature and books because that’s been my survival. We plan for things that don’t involve going to concerts or the movies or even a bar. We try to talk about what it may look like, but I know my words are falling short. People who have been locked up for this long tend to get antsy and cranky towards the end. They don’t need COVID to feel that way. Just think of how stir crazy and isolated you felt this spring, and you were inside your own home. The transition to the outside world is hard enough. I’m not sure my words are even able to sink in. I write down what I can for them to take home so they can look at it when they’re ready.
My role has changed as well. I used to cover one jail, and now I cover two. I used to meet with my students in person two days a week, and now we’re limited to Facebook messaging. I used to go to DSS with them and walk them to desks of people who could help them. FB messenger not the same. Nothing is really the same.
If it was you, what would you tell an adult who has been locked up for 2020 to prepare them to leave?