Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

See you later alligator

This is a gator, not a gator fan.  Go 'Noles!

Last night, friends and colleagues at Yale had a "See you later alligator" party which was lots of fun and greatly appreciated.  It's a wonderful thing to be around people who understand you, especially when facing the prospect of 45 million new faces on the other side of the ocean.  It is this sentiment that I am trying to pack into my suitcase so when I get the blank stares and the awkward silences in the months and weeks ahead I can smile and think to myself, "Well, Katina would have thought that was funny."

Earlier in the week, I had what has turned out to be my last interaction with a SHARRPP study participant.  (SHARRPP is Kim Blankenship's NIDA study about the impact of criminal justice systems on HIV risk that I have been working on since 2005.)  I will be packing that moment into the suitcase as well.

The participant wasn't scheduled to come in on Monday morning, but was unable to go to work because of the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, so called to see if he might be able to schedule a last minute appointment.  When he came in, I sat with him to go through the informed consent process - basically explaining what the study is about and what his participation in the project would entail.  After this discussion, I asked him if he had any questions and if he still wanted to participate.

For a moment, we sat in silence.  He was skimming through the informed consent form, flipping the pages.  And then he looked at me and said, "So what you want to know is the story about what I've been through?  Yeah, I want to do that.  No one has ever wanted to listen to that before.  I meet with a lot of people but they are always talking to me, not listening." 

This person was in his mid-40's.  His first sentence in adult prison, in CT, was in the 1980s.  He was 16 years old.  (Note that CT no longer incarcerates minors in adult prisons.  We wrote a short paper in 2007 in support of efforts to change those laws which you can read on the CIRA website.)  He claimed that he has been in prison or under community supervision since that time.  In fact, the DOC records reflect that he is serving a sentence for 3rd Degree Burglary that began in 1988.  That would be a very long sentence for this crime, so there's more to this story for sure.

How does it feel to lead an invisible life?  When something happens to me, I call my sister.  We discuss, at length, what I did, what I meant to do, what I should have done, what she would have done, what the other person did, what that meant to me, what happened to my friend that was similar, etc.  With these conversations, the thing that happened to me becomes real, becomes part of a larger narrative about who I am and how the world works.  If no one ever listens to your story, did it ever really happen?

It really is an amazing experience, and one that I have had time and time again with SHARRPP and my dissertation project, to sit with people and hear them verbalize and think about, sometimes for the very first time, the stories of their lives.  The stories come out in the talking but also in the sitting and the eye contact.  You know when Harry Potter looks into that magical pool and sees all the history of the Voldemort and his parents swirling around in the water?  

Last night, I realized that the people at the party were not just people who had worked with me for the last 8 years, they were people who had all taken the time to listen to, shape and re-shape my stories.  Thanks for that, I'm a lucky girl.