Works and Days

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.”

            This experience has been daunting. So much so that at times it has taken a great deal of force myself to carry on, past the parameters of my comfort zone, to ensure the project’s success.

            For instance, getting permission to take a camera and voice recorder inside a prison is far from easy. Reflect on the fact that I would not be allowed to enter the institution wearing the wrong variety of shoe, and that even music CDs are restricted from entering the premises, and hopefully you will get a sense of how controlled the entry and exit of any item is. Allowing recording equipment into a prison is asking for a liability.

            To bring in my equipment, I need the permission of the warden, who will then provide the guard at the front entrance a detailed list of what exactly I am permitted to bring in for specific dates and times. To even accomplish a meeting with the warden, I must first convince one of the founders of CWW (I will refer to her as Mrs. D) that my intentions are good.

            So that’s where I began. In my first week here, I arranged a meeting with Mrs. D.

            This woman is practically legend. Her impressive reputation precedes her to intimidate me. The first story I heard of Mrs. D involved her going home early from prison one day because she slipped in blood after breaking an aggressive inmate’s ribs in self-defense. It wasn’t her blood, and she was back working at the prison the next day.

            This lady is one tough cookie. And she doesn’t impress easily. Needless to say, I was shaking in my closed-toed, prison-appropriate shoes.

            After our first meeting, which was quite short, she did not seem sold on the idea of my taking photos or conducting interviews.

            Her words were, “How terrible will it be if you aren’t able to do this project?”

            Not encouraging.

            I spent the afternoon back in the classroom, and by the end of the day I knew I had to the photo project. These students are too incredible to have their voices remain unheard.

            So I talked with her again. I described what I knew and all the research I’d done regarding the DOC requirements for what I was proposing. I told her it was in fact feasible, and described to her what I would need to make it happen.

            Through this process, I learned that to convince her, I first needed to convince myself. I needed to be fully confident that I knew what I was talking about and that I knew I was capable of what I was proposing.

            And, magically, it worked.

            I was called out of class for a meeting with Mrs. D (to the good-natured teasing of the student inmates).

            “I’ve arranged a meeting with the warden for 1:30 today. She is nearly impossible to get in touch with, but I managed it.”

            The meeting with the warden went as smoothly as could be. Mrs. D gave me a shining introduction, which I followed with a description of my project, and that was that. I was instructed to send an email detailing what I need to bring in when, and it will be approved.

            I had to go eye-to-eye with a woman with more than 30 years of prison experience, and convince her that this naïve, green, 20 year old from a strange school no one here has heard of was worth taking a risk on.

            Somehow, unexpectedly in the midst of all this, I also managed to earn her respect.

            Mrs. D’s husband and fellow CWW founder was introducing me to some faculty members, and told them, quite seriously, “This young lady is amazing. She has managed to do something I’ve never been able to do. She’s number one on my wife’s list.”

            In having to prove myself to others, I’m also proving myself to myself.

            The expectations of this project are scary. It has been stressful. Sometimes I wake up from nightmares about running out of time, going home, and having nothing to show for my summer. But in spite of all that, I feel I need to be here, doing this project. Because far outshining any fear or doubt I might have is the splendor of the incredible intelligence and hope and potential I see in the classroom. These stories need to be told, and they need to be heard. And they are going to be.

            In addition to my work at the prison, I have been assisting with searching for grants the college program could be eligible for, doing a bit of curriculum design (I even was permitted to lead a portion of the students’ African American Studies class!), and exploring around Virginia. I was able to take my first-ever trip to D.C., and spent a weekend in Richmond taking in the rich history, visiting the Fine Arts Museum, and seeing a phenomenal performance at the beautiful Agecroft Hall.

            I don’t think I could be more fortunate, and I give such a powerful shout-out to everyone who made this possible for me. 

Tags: psf, presidents summer fellowship, prisons, virginia, photojournalism, education