Works and Days



PSF Project, Campus Within Walls, Part 3

I went to where we are supposed to find society’s worst. What I found were people working to be their best.

I spent five weeks attending class with our outcasts, our pariahs, our unseen. The ones we place in shadow and in darkness, out of view, all the better to construct them as distant abstracts, faceless and certainly heartless causers of violence and tragedy and badness. Criminals. Violators. Undeserving of society, deservedly stripped of rights.


PSF Project Campus Within Walls, 2

Washington Monument, summer 2014

     It’s been an amazing last few weeks. I’ve learned and grown more than I would have thought possible in the short time I’ve been here. I’ve come to learn what a tenuous position this college program is in, and to so admire all the people behind the scenes who fight tooth and nail to keep it funded and alive to serve. I have learned that the philosophy I see embodied in the Campus Within Walls administration is one that must be practiced in whatever course my own life takes: To fight for the underserved, and to give without requiring any initial proof to pass a judgment of “worthiness.” There is a need, and they are ensuring it is met. It’s that simple.

            Undertaking this project has been scary at times. Not for the reasons one might expect from a project conducted in a prison, but from the experience of being personally challenged. I love going to the prison class, but I will admit, there have certainly been times when I’ve wished I was at home, spending a carefree summer exploring the great Northwest with family and friends. I am very aware of my own expectations for this project. I want it to be great. I want it to do justice to the inmates’ experiences, humanity, and strength. It’s terrifying to think that I might not be successful. Were I not even trying, I wouldn’t have the discomfort I do, because I would not be creating the opportunity to fail. My limits are being tested. This grant has allowed me the chance to translate my lofty words and big dreams into actions. There’s no stopping now. Not only do I have myself to answer to, and those who placed confidence in my abilities by funding me, but I now also feel obligated to all the students and administration at the Campus Within Walls program. These students have lodged themselves irremovably in my heart and in my life. Although their lives and their college experiences are restricted behind fences and razor wire, there is no way that their impact on me will remain contained. Their needs don’t disappear when I do. My experience this summer has placed in me a sense of obligation to continue to work with prison justice and inmate rehabilitation programs. In my original thinking, I believed the PSF award was granting me the opportunity to  “complete” my summer project. I am now realizing how limited that perspective was. Rather, what my PSF summer has done is awaken a passion and deep sense of loyalty and lasting obligation to this small, scrappy community college prison program. There is no way I will be able to close the door on this experience, and walk away from the dedicated students and administration. My work with Campus Within Walls is light years away from “complete.”

PSF project with Campus Within Walls

I glance at myself in the mirror, and anxiously scrutinize my outfit. Long khaki pants and a plain, loose-fitting black shirt. It’s my first day of school, and the dress code is quite strict. No jeans. Nothing too revealing, nothing too form-fitting. No dresses, no skirts. Long pants. Sleeved shirts. No blue tops. The possible ways I could violate the code seem endless.

I glance down. My shoes may be a problem. Only closed toed shoes are allowed, and all I brought with me are sandals and running shoes. I wear the running shoes as they are the pair with the only chance of passing inspection, but they may prove to be too informal.

I grab my bag. It contains my wallet and cell phone, though I know already these items will be staying in the car. I will bring only my photo ID into the school building.