By Mary Walle
About the guest blogger: Mary Walle is a Senior at the University of Michigan studying History. She’s been involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project since January 2012. Through PCAP Mary has participated in three theater workshops and performed in four original plays, one with the young men at Wolverine Human Services and three with two groups of men at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. Their final production was February 7. Mary continues to work with PCAP but is not currently participating in any workshops in order to focus on her Senior Thesis Project on the Sanctuary Movement in Detroit. She dedicates her thesis to the men she worked with at Gus Harrison.
I was always conscious of my clothing going inside nearly every week of this past year. Wear something baggy to cover my form. Make sure I have socks. (One time, I wore sandals and panicked in the parking lot. Thankfully, I was let in.) Definitely wear a bra. Nothing ‘revealing’ or ‘suggestive.’ Suggestive of what? That I am a woman in a men’s facility? Turns out that’s pretty hard to hide. And the catcalls made it clear that everyone has eyes and no baggy sweater can hide: I’m a woman inside.
I walked inside Gus Harrison Correctional Facility every week for a year. For a year I’ve been part of two successive theatre workshops. For a year I have walked inside Thursday evenings at 7pm and left at 8:30pm. Yesterday I walked out for the last time.
I was purposeful with what I wore. My shirt and pants as unattractive as I could manage. But I was also purposeful to wear something that might share some of myself without a need to exchange words. Shoes. Shoes tell something about a person. Inside and outside but perhaps they can tell a particularly important story inside.
Danny wears plain black shoes, always covered in dirt and dust. He’s a gardener. He tends and manages immense gardens, cultivating greenhouses of poinsettias and more. 5.7 always had meticulously shined shoes. They were beautiful and spoke to me of self-respect and pride.
Glover-Bey mostly wore brown boots that didn’t look like they were made for actually working in. On occasion though he wore white high tops with a glossy sheen. The day of our play he wore the high tops. They took his hunched form across the back forty. White shoes against blacktop. We walked from different points to the same destination unable to acknowledge each other on that barren blacktop, but our shoes took us to the same place. A place, if only for a moment, where we could.
My shoes too said something about me when I wasn’t allowed to say much about me.
I first always wore my Birkenstocks. I got them in eighth grade. It’s a big deal in my family to get Birkenstocks, a right of passage if you will. I wore them for ease. Easy to slide off and on in the bubble. Then I branched out one week, I’m not sure why.
I’m not sure if it was at first conscious or not that I changed my shoes. One thing I could, with some freedom, change to mix up the monotony of baggy sweaters and those same jeans. My own prison uniform. I think it was the converses next: one red pair, one with a colorful pattern. Two of my favorite shoes. I bought them in high school. The red ones are worn down, beaten by my plodding feet which hustled through the hallways and campus walkways, up many flights of stairs, through puddles and slush.
Now they carried me through the prison yard, a place my high school self would never have expected to be.
I love my red shoes. I once wrote a poem about them. The others are fresher. I’ve taken better care to not beat them up so badly and maintain that crisp new shoe look. One week I must have felt particularly feisty and I wore dark green shoes that had bright green spiky bottoms. Ricky commented, “What shoes are you wearing? I’m down with the chucks but what are those?” They’re another side of me. The spunky, wacky, stand out, side. I didn’t say this but maybe my shoes did for me.
Shoes can be controlled in a mostly uncontrollable place. They say something about a person. I didn’t notice everyone’s shoes. Most were of a uniform variety, black and simple, scuffed and broken to various degrees. Most I suppose blended with the uniform I became so accustomed to seeing that sometimes I didn’t see it at all. Except when my purple jacket laid next to a set of their same blue and orange jackets.
But some shoes stood out. I felt were prided or told a particular story. Some I could infer others still a mystery, much like the men I knew.
In a way shoes inside are just the same as outside where people wear all sorts of shoes to “express themselves” and also just practically for different reasons. When so many forms of expression are denied a person, when everyone wears ‘prison blues’ with the orange stripe across their back, down their pants, and an orange hat so bright it hurts to look at, I imagine shoes begin to mean something more. Any show of difference would. It’s so natural, so human to want to be different, special, unique.
I wish my shoes and Glover-Bey and Danny’s shoes could talk. They might speak of everywhere they’ve been with me and them, of when they were bought and why. So much of what needs to be said can’t be said inside. So much of what is said is not spoken at all. It’s said through body language and eyes. I look into a man’s eyes and my eyes are saying with all I am “I see you.” Do you see me? Just as I am. Incomplete and imperfect but I come. Every week I came. I saw you and you saw me. We knew each others shoes.
I don’t know what shoes mean inside. I can only imagine, as I can only imagine what it means to live, be, and survive in there. You don’t hear their voices or see their shoes except through the mediation of my eyes and voice. I wish you could.