Field Notes: Prison sessions

Exactly a year ago, I received a text from one of the prison superintendents, Mdm D, bidding for me to excogitate a program for girls in Reformative Training Centre (RTC). She knew of my community work with at-risk youths and thought I’d be a good fit to plug the current gap/s in the prison system.

In my knowledge, through-care for young female offenders has been found lacking, especially salient in comparison to their male counterparts. The scarcity of befrienders going into prison is compounded by the fact that very often the biographies and personality of these well-meaning individuals who volunteer their time simply do not match the girls inside. As a result, the efficacy of the programs planned leaves a lot to be desired. Girls come out wanting to change, but fade and go back in just as quickly. Not just that. They follow through the prison system like we do in school - graduating from Girls Home to RTC and then to Prison. Rate of recidivism is high.


In my first meeting with Mdm D and C, I was immediately sold by the opportunity of going in to prison. I’ve heard countless stories from my subjects-turned-friends of their time inside this total institution and have always wanted to see and *smell* what this space was like. But I also know for a fact that I’m not one who works well with bureaucracy and red tape, so I needed someone like-minded, organized and patient to help me deal with all of those so I could have fun doing work I like to do. This is where my kindred spirit and co-conspirator, Nadia Samdin, comes in. 

My friendship with Nad dates back to 2013 when we were co-panelists on a Trailblazer Community Service Weekend Sharing Session co-curated by *SCAPE and TedxYouth. Not gonna lie and say I paid a lot of attention to her then because I was enamored by Anthony Chen, whose film at that time just won the Cannes Award (sorry Nad!), but we kept in touch and over the years I’ve been impressed by her work and dedication to the community she serves. I knew for sure I would want her on board if I had meaningful work to do and needed a partner.

Long story short, Nad and I formed a team and it’s been 8 months in. 8 months of administrative headaches, cumbersome paperwork, pushing boundaries, playing bad cop (think: archaic and inflexible systems), but also pooling together a motley crew of befrienders, doing ethnographic work inside listening to stories of despair and regret; and also of dreams and resilience, and now meeting some of these girls outside has been pretty darn fulfilling.

Just some field notes:

One incident that shook me – receiving news that A, who was actually due to be released pretty soon, was sentenced to punishment cell/isolation because of misbehavior and subsequently diagnosed/labeled to have mental health issues. Of course, the medicalization of deviant behavior looks to be the easiest way to file and ‘treat’ these individuals, but really, how much of this is actually us individualizing social problems (i.e. becomes a medical problem/illness vs social issue)? You take away the moral culpability of what being in this cold, inhuman, insentient space managed in the most esteem-crushing, undignified way does to your soul. Now it becomes the fault of the deviant and not symptomatic of problems in this social system. Right? Very sad because in all my interactions with A, she struck me as a warm and enthusiastic youth with a fervour for life :(

Also, another thing that stood out was the girls’ perception of self-image and social participation upon release. The first few considerations and actions were to shed away visual cues of prison life by getting a new look (hair, nails, brows, clothes) so as to reintegrate back into “legitimate” society. Yet, their public identity as a deviant is still highlighted and made known by the tagging device latched on their leg (so big, so conspicuous!). Surely, this only serves to remind them of ‘em labels and master status as an offender. We brought V to the climbing gym last week and she insisted on wearing sweat pants (because long enough to cover the tagging) to avoid unwelcome stares. 

Medicalizing deviant behaviors, labeling and branding, status degrading tokens, middle-class aspirational references and lack of means – so many things to think about. It’s going to be a long and arduous journey. Do I have solutions to any of these? No, I certainly don’t. But I think I’m growing with each visit and every encounter with these girls and I hope that in time to come I’d have some answers however piecemeal they may be.

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