At least five people told me not to wear a mini-skirt. And, no makeup either. The Italian assistant half-jokingly suggested that I don a ski suit. So, I went in jeans and a sweatshirt that smelled a bit musty from drying in the garage; it was the best I could do. Alice, on the other hand, was as elegant as ever with her small pearl earrings despite her protestations that she always went as natural and neutral as possible. She had told me that she usually wears her workout clothes, and for some reason I was expecting one of those windbreaker swish-suits from the 80s, but this time she came in pajamas that I secretly thought were nice enough to wear to school. But, no matter: whether we were or not, we both felt underdressed as we stepped over the prison’s heavy metal threshold.
I had never been in an American prison before, much less a French one. My scant knowledge came from the rare glimpses that I had had of a sprawling correctional facility while driving north in Wisconsin, and, of course, from the movies. Neither of these sources really helped me to imagine how that morning would unfold, and as I peddled my bike through the crisp dawn, my mind spun instead around a song stuck in my head.
And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand
When everything’s made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am
The guards and wardens were expecting me, so when I stepped through the doors, they surprised me with their English. Your passport, Meeses Lee! was much more friendly than any customs officer’s grunt, and they smiled more than the ladies at the tourism office—something the movies had definitely not prepared me for. Then, we went through the metal detectors and then gate after gate after white-painted gate. In theory, I knew that it is difficult to both enter and exit a prison, but having to wait for each gate to close before the next one could open grounded me in the creaking, cold reality.
Once inside, there was something else the movies had not prepared me for: I didn’t understand at first which people were the inmates. The guards and wardens were all in dark blue uniforms and black lace-up boots, and that made sense to me, but the inmates didn’t have any uniform. There were no orange jumpsuits. There was no standardized, colorless garb. Instead, they were dressed in street clothes. They could have passed for visitors. They looked like me.
In a clean, bright room with a horrible echo, Alice and I waited a long time for the first group of six to come, and after a good half hour, Alice speculated that the inmates might not show up. Even though they had all volunteered for English lessons—taking classes reduces their sentences—they can never be counted on to actually attend. Sometimes they choose to sleep; sometimes, Alice suspects, the guards, jealous that they don’t get free English lessons, don’t bother to tell the inmates that it’s time for class. While we waited, Alice told me that, if she wanted to, she could find out what her students were in for, but she didn’t want to know. I didn’t either; I was afraid that I might act differently. I knew that this was not a high-security prison and that was enough. Alice also warned me that the inmates would shake our hands, wanting contact with the outside world, and when one lone student finally straggled in, he proffered his hand to both of us.
He was stocky, and during the lesson I learned he was ex-military, but I would never have been able to tell it from his limp handshake. Or from the way he refused to look me in the eyes. And I don’t want the world to see me. When Alice told him that our lesson would be more of a cultural exchange and that he could ask me questions about the US, he refused, saying that he had already travelled a lot and that he didn’t have any questions, so we did pronunciation and reading comprehension exercises instead.
The next group was more dynamic. Three of them eventually made an appearance, all at different times, and each gave a similarly lifeless handshake. Their English was better, and they were all eager to ask questions: where I was from, how old I was, why I wanted to come to prison, whether I’d ever gone on the university spring breaks they’ve seen in the movies, if I liked the Chicago Bulls, and whether Chicago is dangerous. The hour was quickly up, and they sauntered out, each offering another dead-fish-of-a-handshake.
Even though Alice had prepped me, I was most unprepared for those handshakes. They were the kind of handshakes I—not an avid hand-shaker to begin with—try to avoid, perennially worried that my grip is not strong or confident enough. Maybe these hands’ lack of energy was due to anti-depressants or anti-libido drugs. Or, maybe the inmates were deliberately flaccid, not wanting to scare us, knowing that our returning rested on a trust that could easily be shattered. When everything’s made to be broken.
Later, Alice told me that when she leaves the prison, she has the strangest feeling that she’s leaving the real world behind. And, sure enough, once the heavy metal door closed behind us, we hurried back to our flats and showered, changed, swiped mascara wands, and spritzed perfume in order to be presentable enough to teach in the wood-banistered high school where we couldn’t be our raw, pajamaed-selves. I just want you to know who I am.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.