We interviewed #bsuenglish professor Adrienne Bliss about the volunteer work she has been doing with women’s prisons for the past five years.
Could you describe what you do?
I am a volunteer in … two ways: I started out with a program called Angels Wings. … They work with the nursery program, Wee Ones there at Indiana Women’s Prison. … It’s pretty innovative actually, and we do baby showers, we do baby’s first Christmas, baby’s first Easter, things like that. … And then on the education side, I both teach as a volunteer professor and I volunteer in the library.
How did you get started with this?
It’s a very convoluted story. … I was going to teach a class at the men’s prison in Michigan City and it took me a while to decide if I could do that, but I decided that I would. And then the semester that I was teaching there, my son died in a car accident. And of course the world fell apart, and I just thought oh you know just go away, but one of the things that stuck with me was the students I had. And it was just halfway through the semester they bought a sympathy card, and signed it and mailed it to me, and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish in prison, and that just stuck with me. So I kinda dropped out of life for a couple years. Then four years ago, we had a faculty member, Liz Whiteacre, whose husband is a criminal justice professor—I told you it was convoluted—who does research with Wee Ones … and that’s when I started volunteering at Indiana Women’s prison.
What are some of the challenges that you find you come across there?
They are much more inquisitive, they are very well prepared, they have a lot of questions, and they have a lot of respect for education. … The biggest challenge, honest to God, is that they have no access to computers or internet at all.
How do research and [writing] papers work then?
They have to write the papers by hand. Some of them can get computers with word processing, but mostly they have to write by hand. For instance, what I did this semester in Lit Theory is they each had to choose a novel that they were going to write about and once they had, about halfway through the semester when they had narrowed down their topic, what I did was I went to Bracken Library and found four to five research articles around their ideas. And I just printed them on my allocation and took that in to them.
What does a typical day going to one prison … look like?
Well, if I’m teaching, I usually teach in the morning. They have count five times a day, so everything is worked around count. So, I teach from 7:30-10:30 and then they go back to the dorms for count, and at 10:30 I just go ahead and go down to the library and work for about an hour and a half there by myself, and when I say work, that is a very loose word. I’m a gofer. I shelve books and go through and organize and reorganize and try to neaten things up. I try to come up with some sort of displays. … I’m only there one day a week usually. But, I seem to be better with the alphabet than some of the people who shelve books, and I want the books to look attractive, so I think that once a week sorting out the shelves is a good thing.
Is there any experience that stands out to you as something that’s very rewarding?
It’s not rewarding. It’s not altruistic. I’m not being good or kind or any of that kind of stuff, and I can honestly say part of it is working with the women in prison has helped me get back into the world since my son died, so my feeling is that I get a lot from this, and it keeps me going. … I’m actually quite selfish in doing it. And they always thank you, and they are very appreciative, and I just say, “You don’t have to thank me, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
What are some other ways interested parties can help?
The library needs donations, but not textbooks, no textbooks, no more anthologies. We’ve got James Patterson coming out the ears, but I am looking for current books written since 2000, you know, things like lit theory, philosophy, a little better writing besides James Patterson and Nora Roberts. We’ve got Stephen King and Dean Koontz, the kind of standard people you would think a library would have that they would read, we’ve got that. But I’m always looking for different kinds of books for the library.
Where does this lead for the women in the program as far as academics? How does this work out for them?
Well, hopefully an associate’s, possibly a bachelor’s. Bachelor’s is the long term goal if we can get enough professors. President Obama has started a very small test program of putting Pell Grants back in the prisons and Holy Cross is trying and hoping that they’ll get some of that money because providing professors and books can be expensive for a lot of people like myself that volunteer. … The ultimate goal is to have an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree because these women, to be perfectly honest, are going to have an incredibly hard time getting any kind of job at all, and the degree helps them with critical thinking skills and provides some credentials.
Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about your experiences there that you think our readers might find interesting?
There are a couple things. I’m actually going Thursday night to what’s called the ICAN graduation, and that’s the Indiana Canine Assistance Network. There is a program in the prisons, in both Pendleton and the Indiana Women’s Prison, where they train service dogs and the dogs spend about the first year of their lives at Pendleton living with one of the male prisoners, getting basic skills and growing out of some of that puppy stuff. And then they come to the women’s prison and the women train them, and they become service dogs, and they’ve done service dogs for someone who’s deaf, someone with epilepsy, physical disabilities. This time, we’ve got a vet and one of his diagnoses is PTSD, and he’s getting a service dog. … And this is opening up new lines of research for me. I’ve written two conference papers and I’ve got a third one coming up around the topic of prison, and I’m working on a research proposal now to do some readership studies and it looks pretty good. That will involve me doing surveys and interviews, kind of ethnography with the women at Indiana Women’s Prison.
And what will that allow you to do?
Nothing. What I felt like is, I didn’t want to go in there and just be a do-gooder lady liberal, which is what I am. I felt like if I was going to do research and be in there, I needed to understand what this process is. How do these people wind up here? Very deliberately, and to a couple of staff people that I see pretty regularly, I let it be known that I’m doing this and why I’m doing it, so that they realize that I respect their position too because being a correctional officer is not an easy job or a desirable job, and there are a lot of jerks out there, and yes there are a lot of major problems with that, you know, what you’d expect, but it’s not as bad as Orange is the New Black, and Orange is the New Black comes nowhere close to approximating prison.
Yeah, I imagine you have a lot of opinions on that.
I’m glad it’s out there to raise awareness, because people don’t think about women’s prisons. Women only make up, at this point, 7% [of the] prison population, but they’re also the fastest growing group, so I think Orange is the New Black does a wonderful job of raising awareness. If you want to watch a good women’s prison show: [check out] Wentworth on Netflix. It’s Australian and it’s women’s prison down there, but anything that keeps the awareness out. … These people are coming back to our towns. They might not live right next to you, but they’re coming back, and if we keep treating them as sub-human and bad, then that’s what we’re going to get back. So, I’m just trying to go in and say, “You’re my student.” I don’t go in and say “You’re my offender.” “You’re my student, so what are we doing today?”