Doing Time: Reflections on Three Months in Jail

Laura MacDonald

I got out of jail exactly one month ago today. It almost seems like a different world here. In jail the world becomes very small. You are never far away from the walls. Strange to me was the way I adjusted to this over time, not completely, never completely, but enough to get by. I still cannot imagine the adjustments a mind and heart must make to survive imprisonment in the long term. It is amazing the circumstances a person can adapt to, but at what cost? I remember hearing about a former School of the Americas protester who refused to be sent to a prison without fences (yes they do exist) because he didn't want to build those fences in his mind. I thought about that a lot when I was in jail, about freedom of the body and freedom of the mind. I've heard that true freedom lies within, which I believe is true. But jail can be insidious.

Jail hurts people. Jail holds mothers and fathers of children, and children of mothers and fathers. Jail is stale air and droning television. It is the colorless color of the cheapest paint available, an institutional storage tank for suffering people. For me, it was an extremely positive experience, because I left a little bit less ignorant than when I entered, met some people I will never forget, and encountered the time and space I needed to just think and exist. For most of the other women I met, jail was an extension and an intensification of the marginalization of their daily lives.

On the outside, it is hard to make enough money to support your kids. On the inside, it is impossible. On the outside, it is hard to get decent medical care and healthy food. On the inside, it is impossible. On the outside, poor neighborhoods are dumping grounds for industrial toxins. On the inside, the chlorine in the water left a blue film in my drinking cup. On the outside, poor people are disempowered, and on the inside, this disempowerment is complete.

One fact needs to be emphasized: almost every woman I met in jail was a mother. Also: almost every woman I met in jail was imprisoned for a nonviolent crime. And: there is nothing within you, or me, that makes either of us any different from the women I met in these Georgia county jails.

There has been much said about how our country's system of punishment does little to address the underlying problems that lead to the breaking of laws. It has been suggested that rehabilitation of "criminals" — I dislike this word; it creates a "them" that is the opposite of "us," and permits people within the clutches of the penal system to be seen as a faceless, scary mass — is the solution. I believe that crime can never be solved, even through attempts to "rehabilitate" individuals, as long as our society remains one utterly stratified by class. Just as the vastly unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America requires military force and the existence of institutions like the School of the Americas, the vastly unequal distribution of wealth in the US requires police force and the existence of institutions such as jails. Need I also mention that racism, as well as poverty, is institutionalized in our culture?

A final thought: I have heard it said by another SOA-protesting ex-con that every white, middle or upper-income person in America should experience what is sometimes referred to (and apparently without irony!) as our nation's criminal justice system. I couldn't agree more.

Last July, as one of the “SOA 37,” Laura began serving 90 days in prison for “crossing the line” at the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia in November 2001. Laura now works with the Syracuse Cultural Workers and for My Sisters’ Words bookstore.