Saturday, June 28, 2014

Seeing the Gray...Part 2: Interview with Michael Sutcliffe

By: Emily Ostrowski

 In our last newsletter, I reviewed the popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black (OINTB). Part of that review dealt with the ways in which the show portrays prison life. For better insight into the topic I interviewed PhD candidate and WORTH volunteer Michael Sutcliffe, who has worked for years with various organizations that serve incarcerated populations. Michael opened my eyes to some of the inaccuracies of OITNB, and while I still consider myself a fan of the show, I ended my initial interview with Michael wanting to seek out media that offered a more realistic portrayal of life in prison.

This desire led Michael and me to organize a showing of the documentary Visions of Abolition at YWCA. The showing was held Wednesday, April 30th in YWCA’s community room. Roughly 15-20 YWCA employees, volunteers and members of the community gathered together to watch the film, and afterwards participated in a brief Q&A. Michael and I also had our own conversation about the film, problems with our current prison system, and his advocacy with WORTH. Here are some highlights below:

Q: What do you find most powerful about the documentary Visions of Abolition, and what do you hope those watch it glean from the film?

 Visions explains the economic and social origins and effects of incarceration and peels back some of the myths and the veil that popular media has created – the most powerful attribute of the prison is its ability to make people disappear. The prison system classifies people according to their social “offensiveness” and makes them vanish from public life, ostensibly they are disappearing for a period of time, but for most, it’s forever unless they have help. Visions was created by a group of women who survived the prison system and are in various stages of shirking off the identification it’s branded them with – physically branded in some cases. Visions also prominently features Angela Davis whose work was the first abolitionist writing that I encountered, and still is the foundation of much of my own writing. Davis is really effective at articulating the ways that the prison system or Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is not a broken institution in need of some reform, but a manifestation of systemic oppression and stigmatization that does exactly what it’s intended to do. As a former political prisoner and one of the most recognized activists on prisons, she brings credibility to the film that few others could. I hope that people watching will get a better understand of the PIC and the extent to which it legalizes and legitimizes racism, sexism, and a classist fear of “poor people.” The PIC enforces privilege and stratifies communities, thus destroying them. I hope that people watching see that we need to move beyond the rhetoric of reform and “fixing” prisons and jails and instead move towards helping each other solve problems.

Q: What do WORTH Volunteers do?
Michael Sutcliffe

 WORTH volunteers go into the Clark County Main Jail and Work Center each week for two hours. At the Main Jail, we organize speakers from the community to talk about topics like drug and alcohol recovery, financial planning, basic healthcare and nutrition, and so on. When we don’t have speakers scheduled, the volunteers run workshops on similar topics to engage participants in more extended discussions. At the Work Center, each week is a single session sewing program. Participants and volunteers interact while working on quilting or sewing projects. Much of the program’s value is in helping to refranchise people who have been disappeared by the criminal legal system. Volunteers at the Work Center can help with the mechanics and logistics of sewing or can be there to talk and support. WORTH volunteers also solicit donations of women’s underwear, bras, and socks from the community in order to provide them to women who do not have financial support while incarcerated – way too many women in Clark County are arrested without these basic items and the jail does not supply them. This really bothers me. Women are often held for weeks or months without underwear, socks, or a bra! And many of these women are awaiting trial and legally are not guilty of a crime! Our volunteers who organized donation drives have done amazing work and collected enough donations to keep the program running, but it’s thin at times, and we desperately need more. Finally, a part of the program that is very important to me is teaching people about the reality of incarceration. The reason the jail and prison are as ugly as they are is that people vote for and support this approach to criminality based on misconceptions – they think locking people up makes our communities safer or that people “deserve” the kind of foul, violent treatment that they get inside. But what this actually does is push people away from their community and make them feel their only options are outside the law. The legal system sorts and brands people with a record that keeps them from getting good jobs and can prevent them from getting governmental (and private) support, which exacerbates the problems that led them to jail in the first place. Our program tries to contribute to change by informing and teaching.

Q: What advice do you give to new WORTH volunteers? 

 While I feel that working in the jail is a learning experience for most people, I don’t think it’s something that requires a particular skill or expertise. I encourage anyone working in an incarcerated setting to practice active listening and to actively try to unpack the complexity of participant’s lives. People in jail have been taught that they’re of lesser value, and listening and respecting them can give back some of their humanity. I encourage everyone who is invested in changing what criminality means and looks like to assess their own strengths and interests. WORTH is a really flexible program that can adjust to make the best use of the people involved, so I encourage new volunteers to look for ways to add, expand, revise, and so on. I also think it’s really important for anyone working inside to continuously try to reconcile what they’ve come to expect and assume about criminality with the realities that they hear and see as they meet people. One of the most important and beneficial aspects of being a WORTH volunteer is the perspective we can get of the powerful influence our own biases and assumptions have on how we see our community and our responsibilities as community members.

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