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Home arrow Law arrow The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change

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Feeling at Home and the Intimacy of Mass Incarceration

The problem of mass incarceration was not a distant academic question for many REACH volunteers, particularly for volunteers of color. As the number of people in jails and prisons has skyrocketed over the last few decades, incarceration has touched more and more American families (Mauer & Chesney Lind, 2002). Seventy percent of the students of color I interviewed talked about family members or close friends who had been incarcerated. White volunteers were less affected, but also not immune to the effects of mass incarceration, with almost 25 % of White volunteers having family members or close friends who had been locked up.[1] These volunteers often chose to work in juvenile hall because they wanted to understand the experience of their loved ones. They came with urgent questions in the back of their minds. Why had their cousins or uncle ended up in the system? What had their boyfriend gone through? They wanted to get beyond the confines of the visiting room to get a more intimate view of life inside the juvenile justice system.

The racial contours of mass incarceration often led volunteers of color to experience the strange sensation of feeling more at home in juvenile hall than on our predominantly White college campus (Mitchell & Donahue, 2009). This sense of homecoming was especially true of Mexican American students who found themselves able to share the pleasures of speaking Spanish and sharing stories of family traditions with students in juvenile hall. One Latina volunteer was struck by how “I fit in more with the inside students than with the outside students that go to the same college as I do.” Another young woman commented, “We’re similar so it was like easy to get a conversation going and like talk about our past and families and parties and all that stuff.... We had like a lot in common with some of the teens there.” As these quotes suggest, volunteers of color relished the connections and community they forged with students in juvenile hall. But this experience of feeling at home in a correctional facility did not come without some significant emotional costs. After all, what does it mean for a student of color to feel a sense of belonging as they walk into a prison or juvenile jail?

Feeling at home in juvenile hall made students more aware of the ways they felt “out of place” as students of color at the University of Redlands. Several students described feeling “culture shock” when they arrived on campus from their predominantly Latino neighborhoods or high schools. They described feeling judged or hypervisible and out of place in classes that were predominately White. Luis, who grew up in South Central, explained that being on a predominantly White campus,

makes me feel a little weird, awkward, insecure sometimes.. Going to juvie hall and talking to them about stuff that I’m used to, it felt like going home in a way. I felt more comfortable there sometimes than here because of the obvious demographics.

Sometimes this feeling of connection left students of color with a kind of survivor’s guilt when they left incarcerated students behind in juvenile hall every week. Anjelica explained:

I am Latina, and I can freely leave the facility. Yet these boys who are seen

as racial minorities as well, are placed there____Most of these kids grew up

where I did. They went to [a] similar school as I did, and I feel a lot of guilt being here [at the University] and living the life I do.

This guilt and sense of responsibility encouraged her to volunteer and to work toward a future career as a teacher in low-income schools.

  • [1] Students volunteered this information without being explicitly asked so the numbers maybe higher. Interestingly, two White volunteers had served time on juvenile probation themselves, while no students of color had, an indication of the ways White privilege could pavethe way to college in spite of a history of criminal trouble.
 
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