What I Learned From My Summer Internship in a Jail

The typical reaction I receive when I answer the oh-so-common “what are you doing this summer” question: Wide eyes, shock, skepticism, and intrigue. “You’re working in a jail? As an intern? Providing sexual health education? Woah….” The response deems the work itself as it truly is – otherworldly.

It is an environment that we — those who are privileged to have no history of brushes with the law — cannot fathom. The world of racism, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, incessant violence, rotting teeth, homelessness, and general subordination is one that my inquirers cannot understand. And it makes sense why they cannot understand; I didn’t either before I started working there. But our ability to not understand allows this world to exist. Because if we understood it and lived it, we would have changed it by now.

For those who do not know, jail is where you are sent after you’ve been arrested and no one has posted bail to get you out or the judge withheld bail. Prison is where you are sent after your trial has completed and you have been sentenced. The difference between jail and prison implies two significant things: there is a constant turnover of inmates within the jail, and the vast majority of them are poor and of color. The cost of your bail might be $500 but if this is your fifth stint in jail your family might be sick of bailing you out, or you might have blown all of your money on heroin and can’t afford it.

Between 200 and 350 people are processed through this jail daily. They might leave jail tomorrow or they might be there for an entire year. The women I work with are in jail for a handful of reasons — drug possession, prostitution, drug possession, battery, drug possession, failing to attend a court date, and did I mention drug possession? The main drugs of choice are heroin and cocaine. They are easy to access, they are relatively cheap, and they ruin your life. On the recreational drug spectrum, they are not the posh ones.

As my mother likes to say, the jail population is the underbelly of society. Minority, teen-mother, heroin addicts are the people our country cares the very least about. If they are lucky enough to have health insurance, it is through Medicaid. If they are fortunate enough to have family members caring for their children while they are in jail, it is mostly likely their own mothers who were teen parents themselves. And if they successfully complete rehab and detox from their addictions, they do so in jail, because for years the government has been cutting back on community-based mental health and drug programs but increasing those resources within penitentiaries. Thus, it is likely that the only place these women receive reliable and consistent healthcare, therapy services, a break from the demanding duties of motherhood, or simply food and shelter is in jail.

My job in the jail is to give the women sexual health education so that they can make their own decisions about sexual practices, parenting, and relationships. I try very hard to not have a “white-man’s burden” attitude as an authoritative individual within the jail. I am not trying to save these women from their so-called despondent lives or push IUDs or sterilization procedures on them because some say they have too many kids they cannot care for. I ask the women what they want to learn about and then I try my best to teach them.

When I work with the women on a one-to-one basis and in larger group sessions, I teach them mainly about STD symptoms and prevention and contraception methods. My days revolve around relaying this information and hoping that the women find it helpful and will utilize it later to maintain a healthy life. Through multiple versions of these conversations, I’ve learned a number of consistent patterns among these women’s lives:

1. The women know a ton about contraception.

Sitting in a room of 12 female inmates and asking how many know about certain methods of contraception continues to awe me as I am still training myself to not expect poor, disenfranchised women to be uneducated. They know about every method. Every single one. On average, they have a better understanding of contraception techniques than a random college student. And they’ve tried a whole slew of them. The difference between them and a college student it that the college student is more likely to use a method correctly. Many women I’ve met don’t know what the word contraception means (they’ve only ever heard “birth control”), but they’ve tried the shot, the implant, the IUD, or the patch. I’d assume that most college students know what “contraception” means but haven’t heard that there’s a three-month-long shot or a three-year-long implant that prevents pregnancy. People who end up in jail likely received some sex ed at some point, but if they are concerned about where they are sleeping at night, if they have food for the next meal, or whether they are safe with their family, sexual education doesn't top the priority list.

2. Cultural differences greatly affect sexual health.

Practically every time I tell an inmate that douching is unhealthy, the women widen their eyes in disbelief. I didn’t even know what a douche was until my teens, and I learned about it in conjunction with its health risks. No one I knew used one because the idea of needing to clean out your vagina seemed antiquated. The practice of douching is prevalent among this jail population because they think their vaginas smell and are dirty. Whether on a daily basis, following their period, or only after sex, most of the women I’ve met have douched with water, soap, paper towel, or even bleach (though that’s less common). It shocked the women to learn that douching does not result in cleanliness, but instead flushes away vital vaginal bacteria; eliminating this bacteria can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease or bacterial vaginosis. I attempt to relate douching with the sexist view that women are dirty or impure, to which the reactions are somewhat neutral. What is clear is that douching is a family and community practice. These women do it because their mothers and grandmothers did it and there was no education about how detrimental it can be.

3. What is taboo in society outside the jail is not a source of shame within it.

In group sessions, many women would proclaim that they had an abortion or an STD. In a setting where such experiences are common, the women are not embarrassed to admit elements of their past. They are not ashamed of their drug addictions, their sexual preferences, or their numbers of unintended pregnancies. I have yet to encounter a woman who is embarrassed to admit that she falls into a number of these categories. Quite the opposite, they hunger for others to be interested in their stories and struggles. They publicize intimate information easily and freely, which bonds them with inmates in similar situations. I find their openness refreshing and commendable. While the “general population” might view these women has backwards or impoverished, their attitudes are ones of strength through unity.

Many women say that jail is the best thing that ever happened to them because they gain resources (drug rehabilitation, mental health programs, therapy, healthcare, etc.) that they never would receive on the outside. Through these resources, some people are able to successful kick their addictions and become self-sufficient. Many others are “return patrons” of the jail or “generationals”: women whose mothers and grandmothers also graced the halls of the same jail. Either way, we are in a horrid state if jail is the only avenue people have to find themselves and become healthy. As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, the prison industrial system is the latest method of ensuring that people of color remain poor and disenfranchised. White individuals take drugs at the same rate, if not higher, than those of color, yet their rate of incarceration is a fraction of that of minorities. While I attempt to fight against the systemic racism embedded in the Prison Industrial Complex, it has been a struggle for me to acknowledge that some women are grateful for their time served because it has ultimately improved their lives.

Though I was aware of the racism within the Prison Industrial Complex before beginning my internship, my work there has enlightened me to the staggering effects of systemic injustice. These women have no voice and believe their questions are stupid. I worry that my encouragement for their self-advocacy falls on deaf ears. But this fear does not stop me from repeating myself and telling them it is important for them to make their voices heard, that they are unique and valuable, and that they have something to contribute. We cannot end systemic racism and injustice if we do not start with these simple acts. We must give people the power and tools to believe in themselves. Otherwise our efforts are simply insufficient.

Esther Bier is a senior at the University of Illinois, Ubrana-Champaign, majoring in Gender and Women's Studies