It takes forever to get into the Allegheny County Jail. Between the four of us, we only have two quarters, which we stick in the parking meter out front. Once past the first set of doors, a police officer approaches us: “Ladies, you need to lock up all your stuff in the lockers, no keys, no sunglasses, no phones.” “We don’t have any quarters,” we say rummaging through pockets. We bump into each other, unsure of what to do next: four free women voluntarily coming to jail, eager and excited to get inside its walls. A woman standing by the lockers turns towards our frazzled mess, “Here, I have a quarter.” “Oh thank you, thank you.” We feed the borrowed quarter to the small locker, lock up our things, and pass through a metal detector.
The guy in charge leads us through metal detector number two and a woman officer scans us up and down. Daylight peers in through the main glass doors, and as we pass through each stage of security, the light slowly fades behind concrete walls. My eyes adjust to fluorescent, revealing bleak, cream hallways. I’ve never been in a jail, but imagined this was how it might be. Behind glass panels sits a large group of prisoners listening to a pastor. One eyes me, locking to my ponytail and earrings; I feel his stare until we close a two-inch steel door behind us.
It feels like many classrooms I’ve been in before–chalkboards, computers, desks, and a book shelf–but rather than filled with energetic children, difficult teenagers, or nicely dressed college students, this classroom is full of prisoners. Twelve men dressed in thin red pants and v-neck shirts sit at computers, shifting big legs in their seats. They give us a nod, a quiet “hello” or a mere look in our direction. My heart thuds like it used to before my ballet performances, but I’m more worried about how I’ll see the audience, rather than how they’ll see me. I’m expecting criminals, and I’m worried about how uncomfortable, unsafe I might feel. I try not to think about why each one’s here. I try not to care.
I’m observing a creative writing class at the county jail, one that I’ll soon be teaching with fellow grad students. I sit in a chair in the middle of the room, facing my back to a prisoner. I hear him breathe in and out, long steady blows behind me. My fear lessens as the teacher continues her lesson. Some men talk quietly to neighbors, others sit in silence at their computers, and some call out words for the teacher to put up on the board. They’re writing a haiku together.
After class, the heavy breather comes up to me and tells me he’s a rapper, so he wants “to write poetry but it ain’t right ‘cuz all the rappers have been goin’ to jail recently.” One asks me how long I’ve been in school. “Damn” is his response and he tells me he wants to go back to school, “down south where it’s warm, so [he] can get into business.” One talks about how he “just wants to write, man” how he “just wants to learn, man.” Men write on notepads in their empty cells and bring them to class every week, hoping their words and my guidance can provide the air they need to lift up their heels, to imagine themselves beyond walls. Or maybe just the sanity to wait between them.
They ask when we’re coming back. “Soon,” we say, “soon.” We head out through the same doors, the same hallways, the same detectors, but this time we walk around the laser beams. I remember our awkward entrance and think about how long it took for us to pass through these doors, how badly we wanted to get in, and how easy it is for us to get out.