Alda Pontes, ES ’14, has been tutoring and mentoring for the last three years at the Manson Youth Correctional Institution as part of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project. Most tutors in this program work through a GED preperation book with the college-aged inmates. Pontes, on the other hand, holds a weekly discussion group for the inmates that covers their hopes, fears, and personal histories, in addition to issues of justice, faith, women’s rights, and class culture. She sat down with the Herald this week to talk about these conversations.
YH: What do you talk about with the inmates?
AP: I usually start with an awkward “What’s up, anything new?” They always say, “nope.” We talk about stuff that’s happened in the week. They really like talking about anything pop culture related. Things that are related to topics that are super comfortable and familiar to them from their life outside. I would say that things that they get the most out of are deeper questions about morals, but also, I think, the idea of justice. I know that all of them have kind of grappled with that a bit.
We did a program on sexuality. I want them to—as a woman, I feel like I have the responsibility to at least give them some background on which to think about our sex. What they write to me is what means the most to me because that we don’t read about in the book; it’s our way of communicating.
YH: Like prompts?
AP: They are, I always give them an assignment. A page. One of them wrote a beautiful poem that starts, “The young lady told me to write about what’s good. I’m not sure she’ll understand my definition, since I’m from the hood.”
YH: How else do they speak to you about their lives before prison?
AP: They’re all from different cities. They all describe sort of identical, classic, low-income urban America. Concentrated disadvantage is what’s described by them. Specifically, this network of peer pressure that’s kind of intergenerational. Specific examples—one of my mentees was young and sitting in his couch—like very, very young, age six, seven, eight—listening to his dad and uncle say they were at the club yesterday, ‘We were wildin’, buying bottles, spilling it on the girls. Someone’s stepping on my shoe, and I pushed him.’ It’s this focus on a visual display of status, and that can be through essentially chains, good jeans, jewelry, good clothing, shoes. It’s this entire rhetoric that seems to be really similar between these guys, this environment where people want to display a lot of wealth, want to hustle here and there to buy these things that show that they are higher status within this closed, really enclosed, environment.
YH: How do you think that sort of attitude transfers to their time in prison?
AP: Well, it’s difficult because in prison everything from clothing to hairbrushes is institutionalized. You have an expense account within prison, and someone from the outside can add, to a limit, a credit for you to have within prison. And you can also work towards that, too, to increase that limit. But everything is institutionalized. So the shoe options that they have are all non-brand shoes, and they come in black, white, and gray. I think they do that on purpose to sort of standardize the playing field there.
YH: What effect do you think your status as a woman has on the tone and direction of these conversations?
AP: This past week we talked about Miss Universe, and the girls they thought should have actually won over Miss Argentina. They watched it on TV. So we talked about that, that got awkward real fast, so we switched the topic. It just gets awkward because they’re so incredibly—and a few of them have said this to me—they’re so incredibly deprived of their manhood within prison. That’s something that people think about less, because the institution is a punishment for crime, but they’re deprived of very basic instincts and when conversation gets to that, I mean, it gets awkward really fast because you can tell how incredibly tense they are around those topics.
The same happened when we had a talk on their view on females because I wanted to talk specifically about their behavior toward the female gender. It gets awkward because when you’re talking about breaking the basic gender stereotypes of what a guy can, should, and does when he’s talking to a girl, there’s a lot of disagreements there between me and them. Things like, they think it’s okay to say some things to women as they’re walking down the street. You know, hollering and things. Two of them did, the other ones were like, “No, I don’t do that.” I actually have noticed this behavior from two of the inmates: they know by now pretty much where I stand on a lot of things, and they’ve kind of molded the way that they claim they see the world to the way I see the world. And I don’t know if they do that to not offend me.
When we talk about things that we haven’t talked about before, like abortion and women’s rights, I find it hard to believe that they’ve always had the same view as me. I find it that they guess where I lie and then align themselves.
YH: Could you speak more about your discussion on abortion?
AP: A lot of people say this: capitalism is secularizing, but institutional punishment is very—it’s a religifying process to the individual. The first thing you do once you get there is read the Bible, according to the inmates.
Everyone will tell you, ‘You’ll be bugging ’cause you just got in and you’ll realize you have seven years to go, and your cellie will just slide a bible across the cell and be like, Read this. Take a look; you’ll find something there.’ And that’s kind of a rite of passage between them, they claim. So the talk with abortion was weird because some of them are relatively religious.
That kind of develops, especially as their sentences come to an end, into more religious apathy. I’ve seen that happen with three of the five inmates. There’s this process of a lot of meditation and self-reflection that I’ve seen in three cases lead actually to secularization post that initial religious boost. So the discussion on abortion was contentious because two of the guys that are newer, that I’ve only been working with for about a year and a half, are just really conflicted with the idea of “fetus-murder.”
YH: Do you find yourself learning why they’re incarcerated?
AP: The picture forms so slowly because when you first meet these guys, A, it’s all about the formality, and B, the last thing they want is to just give you a terrible impression. You’re here doing service—they don’t want to freak you out, you know? I remember, for example, it took me about five or six times—mind you, that’s five or six weeks—of meeting with an inmate to find out about his homicide charge.
It’s usually fit in in some sort of conversation that we’re having about changing perspective and stuff like that. I mean, some of the inmates do just like to talk, they just want to share their story, you know? For example, the homicide one came out as a fluid part of conversation where he admitted that he has come to understand that people make mistakes, and, though life is priceless, the lives of different people are valued through different spectrums. It’s a function, of, I mean, they come from a place where life is pretty—where some people think life is pretty worthless. And very cheap. Whereas I know in our environments we don’t really assign a value to life because it’s the most priceless thing there is.
YH: Do your tutees speak to you about visions of their lives post-prison?
AP: That’s something that we don’t talk about as much because all of my guys have really long sentences. I’ve had guys that have said to me, I know that once I get out I’m going to have to hustle a little bit to get back on my feet—meaning do illicit activity once more, so I can get back on my feet, get a place—but then I’m going to turn my life around. I’ve also had guys that have said I will never touch drugs again in my life, ever.
YH: What do you think will happen to the group after you graduate?
AP: Hopefully someone comes along in the program with a similar vision and is willing to take on this group with the passion that I have. Because there is no other thing at Yale that I’m passionate about like this. There just is none. There is nothing that is touching me like this is. And I think that it’s something that is about them, but ends up changing me, in so many ways.