Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Nosotros Intramuros

So many stories to tell, but to whom do these stories belong?  Who has the right to tell them?

I am a storyteller.  I watch, I listen, I learn, I interpret, I embellish, I share.  This pasttime can often be quite dangerous and unwanted, so I have to be careful.  We study about this is school.  We learn that when we go out and collect "data" from "human subjects," in other words, gather and construct stories with people, we should always get permission from the people with whom we speak before sharing their information with others.  Seemingly straightforward, the process is quickly complicated by questions about what it really means to give and obtain consent, especially in situations of extreme inequalities of power.  Also, when events and stories are co-created, the ownership of the story can become fuzzy.  Am I telling a story about what happened to me, or what happened to us?

I learned these lessons first with my children.  When they were babies and infants, they were unable to talk and they spent a lot of time with me.  We would experience things together or I would witness the things that happened to them, and then I would tell people these stories.  "I was at the store with Javier when...."  "You won't believe what Edie did today at the park..." Through these stories, I constructed my children's identities and my own identity as a mother for anyone who would listen. This seemed OK for awhile, but both of them quickly reached a point where they wanted to tell their own stories, or at least have input into the stories I was telling.  Edie's eyes would fill with dread when I opened my mouth. "What is she going to tell them today?" Some of the stories I told would embarrass Javier.  "That's not the way it happened, Mom!" It took me a minute, but I finally caught on.

I'm not saying that I don't still tell stories about them, but I am more careful.  If they are present, I try to have them tell the story.  I consider the audience more carefully.  And they have learned to tell me what they don't want me to share.  And they tell stories about me, so that helps to level the playing field.  Do unto others...

The 25 women who volunteered for my prison food study signed consent forms. They agreed to allow me to share their stories, provided their names and other identifying information were removed. They told me their stories knowing that I was going to share them with a larger audience, and that fact surely shaped the stories they chose to tell.

The people who I interact with here in Spain have not consented to anything.  The guy who works in the bread store has not consented.  My son's teacher has not consented.  My sister-in-law has not consented. Given that my blog audience is about 20 people, most of whom don't live in Spain, I could probably get away with telling some of these stories, but it feels weird.  Like talking about someone behind their back.

The women who volunteer with me at the Spanish prison, the people who work there, and the women who are incarcerated there haven't consented either.  So, I am volunteering there every week and learning all kind of stories, but what can I really share?  What is my experience and what is their's?  Can I tell the difference between facts that I have learned and opinions that they have imparted?  After writing my last entry about prison uniforms, I actually lost sleep.  I took the blog down, then put it up again.  In the end, I decided it was OK, but it's a treacherous path that I plan to avoid in the future.

Luckily for us, the volunteers that I have been visiting with at the prison have their own blog:  Nosotros Intramuros:  Chicass10.  So you can read their stories directly, provided you speak Spanish or can use the Babelfish translation tool.  The incarcerated women don't have access to the Internet, their blog entries are posted by a volunteer that travels "between the walls" once a week.  It is a program that has been recognized and honored on many occasions.  Indeed, it is remarkable and special that the incarcerated women have a platform to tell their own stories.  There is a lot to read and learn on their blog and I encourage you to explore it.  Today, I would like to highlight an entry that Monse posted on 2/17/11.  She describes a day in the women's wing at Teixeiro.  It is a clear, simple entry that I found fascinating.  Note the way meals punctuate the routine.  Read the entry in the original Spanish by clicking here.

Thursday 17 of February of 2011

A day in the prison

At 8 in the morning they warn to us by public address system that is the hour of the count, which means that we must be standing up with the light turned on and visible, and they pass cell through cell, to count us. In half an hour, we must have everything clean and in order, and at 8,30 they open the doors to us so we can go down to the common area.

There is a prison store where hygiene products are sold and things to eat, so those that want to and have money can have a coffee with milk, and those that they do not have, well, we wait in line in the cafeteria, that is where it where breakfast and lunch are served.

There are tables of four people, and there we have breakfast to 9,30, calling by public address system for those who are in the school so that they leave, and those that are not in school, we have all the morning to walk around the patio, or sit in the dining room. Right now we have two courses, sewing and crafts, and those who have signed up for that go in the morning.

Those that want to go back up to the dorms, can do so at 10 in the morning, that is what the majority does, because down there is nothing to do in the common area.

At 12, people return from the school, and to 12,30 those who went to the dorms come back down, again the store is open for those who want and can to have a coffee.

To 12,45 we eat, and 13,45 we go back up to the dorm, and they do not open the doors again until 16,30, those three hours are dedicated to rest or to write, to see TV you have if it, or to which each can and wants to do.

To 4,30 doors open again, those who wish to remain in the dorm sign up on a paper, and those who don't, well we go down to the patio or the dining room, without again doing nothing until the 19,45, then dinner is served, and at 20,30 we return to the dorm, until the new day that will be just as the previous one, with the same routine, and thus it is that a day between the walls of Teixeiro is lived.