Interview with Briana Whiteside: Department of English Doctoral Student

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Briana Whiteside, a native of Chicago Illinois, is a doctoral student in the English department at The University of Alabama. She received her B.A. from Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and her M.A. from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Her research interests include Afrofutursim, pop culture, the politics of natural hair, and science fiction. Her current research explores the ways diverse writers and visual artists have represented women of African descent. She also hopes to study the social implications regarding the relationships and disconnections between black spaces and “mysterious” black women, as well as constructions of healing communities.

You have worked with prison libraries in an effort to create reforms. What particular reforms would you like see?

The first thing that I would like to see happen is prison reform in regard to education. Though I realize that incarcerated persons are not entitled to certain “privileges” as free individuals, I still believe that they should have the opportunity to learn. To prohibit knowledge for anyone is an injustice to everyone. By withholding access to education, we—by “we,” I mean those who are not incarcerated—are performing a form of violence on the incarcerated. Some of our most brilliant minds are behind bars and it is a tragedy.

What specific improvements are required for prison libraries?

Ultimately, the first step would be to have academic and literary libraries in prisons. I learned that, in some prisons, there might be law libraries for the incarcerated, but there are no literary ones. Therefore, the first step is to get clearance to have a literary library. The reality that there are more basketball courts in prisons as opposed to libraries is quite a shame. When I taught in prison a lot of students were unfamiliar with a large number of literary works because they didn’t have access to the material. Therefore, they were working from a deficit when we were in class. We should definitely work to incorporate literature into the prison library system because literature has the potential to aid in assisting students to come to terms with their past. I believe that literature has restorative capabilities and having accessible books can help the incarcerated identify narratives that speak to their lives and struggles.

How has your background influenced your advocacy choices?

Initially, I was curious about prison culture because of my interest in the implications of shows like Orange is the New Black and Prison Break. However, as an African American, and with the reality that majority of our prisons are filled with bodies of color, I was able to establish a common ground with my students on the aspect of ethnicity. Having a parent incarcerated for much of his childhood also directly impacted one of my family members, and I witnessed him suffer as a result. With this in mind, the common ground that was established created a community of trust and accountability. Sort of like an African American hush harbor. Secondly, I’m from a low-income single parent home and didn’t have certain luxuries that my peers had. Therefore, an understanding of the intricacies of low-income black communities have assisted me in making further connections with my students. So, when my students began talking about their backgrounds, I was able to disclose similarities in my upbringing, which assisted with the productivity of the class. Therefore, my background, and prior interaction with people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system, have informed my advocacy choices.

What other prison reforms does criminal justice policy need to address?

I know that people can change over time and I would really like for the incarcerated to be rehabilitated, and ushered safely back into their communities. The flaws within the justice system—especially as it relates to people of color—is not a new phenomena, but most people don’t know about prison recidivism, and how systems are harmful to the newly released people. I think we need to revisit prison laws and provide assistance to people re-entering the world after the trauma of confinement. I think that’s my major concern because if we don’t equip individuals with the tools to survive in an ever-changing world, then more often than not, they end up in prison again.

Do you think that improvements to prison libraries could positively impact rehabilitation?

Absolutely! One thing that I learned was that literature performs sort of a textual healing for the reader. Through reading literature, my students reflected on their traumas and decisions that landed them in prison. They were able to talk through their actions and make informed observations about their choices. However, I also noticed that certain texts provoked heightened reactions. For instance, when we read Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), students were very resistant—it is a heavy book for anyone to read. Initially, I couldn’t understand why, but the weight on the narrative demanded a sense of personal and cultural responsibility. Additionally, the similarities between the protagonist Bigger Thomas and the students were uncanny—familiar yet unfamiliar—to them. So, it wasn’t until we talked about the book in its entirety that students admitted that they saw themselves in the character on the pages. In essence, the moments of self-awareness and reflection had an impact on the students because they were able to reflect and come to terms with their actions and decisions. They actually had space to think, which is something that is really not encouraged in prison, contrary to popular belief.

Are you concerned that our current system prevents reforms from reaching fruition?

Of course I have concerns about that. The system is the system and it works perfectly for what it was designed to do. On the other hand, I know that literature isn’t really valued in or out of prison systems, but it is imperative to incorporate it into the daily lives of people. I’m not just saying that because I’m a literary scholar, but because I have witnessed its power. Unfortunately, there is great resistance to incorporating new modes of restoration in prison. Why? Because prisons are large money-holding institutions, and not really concerned with creating change that is beneficial for the individual. The focus is on punishment and punishment is what our current system achieves. It’s actually painful when you think about the blatant disregard for human life, both inside and outside of the prison.

What are your goals for your social work in the next few years?

My number one goal is getting literature in the hands of people who are behind bars. Evaluating the values imbedded in the humanities teaches us that the mental work literature asks of readers helps rehabilitate people, arguably, far more than just punishment. Ultimately, wherever I go, I attempt to spread the knowledge that I gained from teaching incarcerated persons with the hope of assisting in prison reform. I want to see people made better and I think that my passion for teaching literature, coupled the awareness that I’ve gained as a result of creating a community with my prison students will assist in making the changes I wish to see.

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