Journal Entry: Melinda Bixler-01/30/2024

Journal Entry

In early December I completed a 6-week program called Inside-Out. It was led by a wonderful criminal justice professor “Doc” from a nearby college in New Jersey. Doc, with the support of this institution, designed a collaborative course bringing together outside college students and select female inmates. The objective – discuss the criminal justice system from both outside and inside perspectives, and identify opportunities for positive change.

Doc and his students brought the train from New Jersey every Tuesday evening for six weeks. Approximately twenty female inmates took part, and although I hated the strip search I had before and after class, the two hours in between were enlightening and some of the most useful two hours of my time each week. It was interactive and for a brief time, we felt like “normal” people again.

I’ll save some of the details for future writing; however, I wanted to share a beautiful speech that was given by one of the inmates. The final class was a celebration, a graduation of sorts. Each participant was recognized and awarded a certificate. One inmate was selected to speak to the group on behalf of inmate participants. Dani S. gave me permission to publicly share her speech. After four years in prison, she is being released in March. While the names she references won’t be familiar to you, the humanity begins to become more clear.

Her speech:

“Last week when Doc had asked us all our final one-word feelings, I said, “irritated.” I had said that for two reasons. One, I had watched someone try to dim another’s light for cool points and to negate whatever they were saying, in a place that Doc had worked hard to create safety. And, two, because for the first, and really the last time, I watched us all drop our collective anxiety and interact, and show personalities that we haven’t had a chance to see and explore, and now won’t get that chance. So, for both of these reasons, I’m selfishly glad that you all gave me the chance to speak today.”

“I want you all to know how much this class means to us. Not just for credits and points, and a break from our monotony that is quite like purgatory, but because of all of you. It’s using our brains socially again, it’s using the knowledge that we had gained and then lost in the grayness. It’s because little by little, you are giving us back a self we forgot existed, and little by little you all gave us a trust and confidence in our society. Trust that not everyone is so shallow and base to dim all of our lights when we leave here. And that little bit is enough for us to breathe just a fraction easier.”

“But that’s not in the curriculum, or in the syllabus for this class. It’s a goal I’m sure, but it is hard to execute and create. Yet, in such a few short weeks with Doc as your guide, you have done that for us, and that small bit of breathing room is freeing. And for people who value freedom as high as we do, that gift is invaluable.”

“This class can show us what is wrong, and maybe, right in our system, but really what I think has showed the most is humanity, compassion, frustration, and just a hint of sarcasm. “Normal.” That’s what we all would say we felt after class, we felt normal. Even sitting in the banana laffy taffy suits, after getting strip-searched in and out every time we came through those doors, after seeing ourselves getting locked in every day and night, you all managed to recognize us as normal human beings. That is not all Inside/Out classes. That is just this class, with this professor, with these students. What Doc has done, and what he continues to do so greatly is to teach you all, to guide you all, to maybe scare but inspire you all to open your eyes and see not the already passed judgment, but see the human beneath. It is a hard lesson to not only learn but to teach and yet he still fights for it viciously. And, if even just one of you can look past it all, then it gives us all hope for when we all come home. If even just one of you can see past the last names, numbers, charges without background, see past our wounds and scars then you can see:

Kayla who is selfless and giving
Candice who has never harmed anyone
Jess who is everyone’s friend
Mel [inda] who is the kind of firework that goes up silently and then explodes into beauty and stuns.
Neca who could put a preacher in the deep south to shame with her praise of her God.
Emonie who says the most ridiculous things, and then something so sweet and sincere you want to hug her.
Vee whose warmth shows when she hands you a bowl full of food you know she put her heart and love in.
Angel who can sing just as beautifully as her name suggests
Faith who is everyone’s mom, grandma, auntie or some sort of loved relation
Becca who is an artist in every respect
Ambur who may be quite, but could never be called meek
Kerry who we all just recently learned has a booming voice
Clare who says things like “that’s delicious” instead of just “that’s great.” And who, bless her, is perpetually cold.
Tay who loves to make people smile and feel safe, and is never afraid of love
Lana whose energy is clear, bright and calming like a sun rising… evern perhaps while her husband is being stabbed. (Inside class joke)
Bree who is funny, smart and fierce, and can pick up any craft and master it
Kelly who will literally throw happiness around so others can feel the joy she radiates
Dorothy who spends, and has spent, all of her time making things for others
And me, who is a serious danger to you all, but only if there’s a bug nearby, and who writes poetry and clearly likes putting words together.”

“We are not just parts, but the sum of all of our parts, and how we choose to learn and grown. It is what we do, and what we create with our parts that matter. And, it is one thing to hear that repeatedly, but it is something else incredibly beautiful entirely to be shown that by Doc and all of you. We will never forget that, we will never forget the gift that you have given us, and we will never stop being grateful.”

–Dani S.

Beautiful. Thank you for letting me share it Dani.