silent bodies speaking from behind bars

Guest blogger, Gina Snooks, is a Master of Gender Studies student at Memorial University. She’s currently writing her thesis on women’s tattooing practices and spirituality. In September 2015, she’ll begin doctoral work in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at the University of Western Ontario. Here, she examines the invisibility of incarcerated bodies, and the implications of such invisibility.

Silent Bodies Speaking From Behind Bars
By Gina Snooks
(also published on Gina’s blog: http://nothingtocrowabout.com/2015/03/23/silent-bodies-speaking-from-behind-bars/)

Tough guys don’t cry. Well, tough guys in prison don’t cry. Well, tough guys in prison don’t cry except when Theo Fleury opens up about his life story, as an inmate named Charles commented in a sound bite that was played during an interview with Fleury and Charles Alder on 680 CJOB, a radio station in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Theo Fleury, ex-NHL star, ex-drug addict, survivor of childhood sexual abuse and now motivational speaker went to Stony Mountain Penitentiary recently to speak to about 100 men who are incarcerated in the federal correctional institution commonly known simply as Stony, located in Winnipeg. Fleury’s message was of hope and healing. He spoke, also, about finding his way back to himself. And, apparently he had men in tears. Tough men.

Word on the street is that Stony’s a tough place. So, it’s not surprising that guys there are not accustomed to bearing witness to each other’s tears, particularly tears that are invoked by a man who reminds them that “we’re all on a healing journey.”

Fleury’s appearance at Stony is not unlike the work being done through the Prison Music Project, led by activist Zoe Boekbinder, who has teamed up with inmates and formerly incarcerated men along with producer Ani DiFranco to make an album of songs written by men who have served time in California prisons. I imagine Fluery and Boekbinder have similar intentions as Johnny Cash did when he wrote the song “Folsom Prison Blues,” which he performed inside the walls of that prison to an audience of inmates in 1968; the point is, bodies behind bars matter.

With that in mind, I am left wondering: how can we talk about embodied life experiences in the absence of bodies?

Maybe it’s more accurate to ask: how do we talk about bodies that are concealed, confined, hidden. Bodies that are silenced, as my colleague Amy Sheppard reminded the audience during her recent presentation in which she spoke of dance as methodology for incarcerated women to explore body image. How is it that some bodies are silenced and hidden from view, some might argue forgotten; yet, these same bodies are under permanent surveillance and on constant display — both inside institutions and also upon release.

Once a body has been marked with a prison number can it ever be unmarked?

Obviously, for those serving a life sentence their bodies will remain marked, given that even if released on parole they will be monitored by the correctional system for life. I’m not really questioning technicalities, though. Rather, I am wondering about the ways in which silenced bodies tell their own stories.

In the process of grappling with these questions I came across a quote that struck me as a particularly powerful statement:

“Shamed people feel the eyes of others on them, even when experiencing the emotion in solitude” (Tangney et al., qtd. in Mobley).

I typed this remark, this narrative, and then I sat staring at the screen as though I had nothing else to say. It seemed that whatever I attempted to express was inadequate; simply put, it wasn’t enough. Then I heard a faint voice coming from inside me say “big girls don’t cry.”

“F#@K YOU!” I shouted back. Whose voice was that anyway? I’ll cry if I want to, I’m just not sure why I would want to.

And, you know what, tough guys can cry too if they want to. Who says they can’t?

I want to be clear, when I say incarcerated men (and women) are tough I’m not talking about a physical hardness, though I imagine some are. Instead, I am referring to the kind of strength it takes to break one’s soul wide open, the kind of strength it takes to speak though the silences, the kind of toughness that comes from looking deep inside and sometimes facing the voices that haunt bodies. I’m talking about the kind of inner strength it takes for a person to acknowledge the marks they’ve placed upon their bodies and the kind of strength it takes to tell those stories though silenced bodies.

Some bodies telling stories through bars, because as the folk singer/songwriter Passenger says, we all have holes but we carry on

Work Cited

Mobley, Alan. “Seeing Shame: Legal Storytelling and Prisoner Rehabilitation.” Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (2014): 23.1. Print.

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