Review of The Feminist on Cell Block Y

Work experience placement, Harry Lownds, shares his ideas about the recent documentary on CNN, The Feminist on Cell Block Y.

The Feminist on Cell Block Y is a documentary showing a program being run in an all-male prison in Soledad, California. The inmate run program taught inmates about feminism and that to be a “proper man” you don’t have to be emotionless and violent. The 12-week program began with Richard (the inmate running the program) asking everyone to write down the five most important people in their lives. Next, he asked them to write down the top 5 things they want to have accomplished before they die. They were then instructed to cross off two from each list, this helped to show them what was most important in their lives and he told them how they should always have them in mind.

The group then heard a few individual stories of how their journey to prison, and a common link between cases was that many of them abused alcohol or drugs from a young age. The shocking statistic that men are twice as likely as women to abuse or become dependant on drugs and alcohol was then shared with the audience. Teenage boys often want to be considered men and it is often the case that doing drugs makes them feel older as well as earning them respect with their peers. The other way boys feel they can earn respect is through violence, the idea that the bigger you are the more respect you will get. However, when this was discussed it was clear that this type of thinking played a major role in many of the inmates ending up where they are.

As the program went on it was clear the inmates were learning a lot and some of them would come into a session having read a piece of feminist literature and would share an idea from it with the group. The idea that it is okay to share your emotions if you’re a man was a reoccurring point throughout the 12 weeks and as a teenage male I felt that this was an important message as it is still considered wrong for a teenage boy to express his feelings properly in a school. While it may be better in schools than it was 50 years ago, there is still a long way to go yet. Personally, I can’t see a program like this working in UK schools for a while as most students would be afraid to open up or express themselves in front of school mates because they fear the reaction and consequences that it could entail.

There would have to be many changes made to the program if it was to ever be successful in schools. The group would have to be a lot smaller and it would never work if it was done in single- gender groups as the boys would never take it seriously because if they did they would be mocked heavily. It would have to be run in small groups of no more than 5 with more girls than boys in each group. Personally, I feel that a group with any more than 5 would result in boys staying quiet and not having to speak, this would be the action I would take, let someone else do the talking and keep my head down. One other aspect that has to be considered before something like this is applied to a school environment is that although school may feel like a prison, it isn’t. After lessons have finished students are free to leave which would either mean students miss lessons (something that can not be done regularly) or it is done after school. An after school workshop if compulsory would be very unpopular and result in students not listening and if it not compulsory I can’t think of a boy in my year who would turn up.

One of the few ways I can see more than 5 boys turning up to an after school program like this would be if there was some kind of famous face there. While of course this would be difficult to organise this would definitely attract more than a couple of school boys, also it is likely that they are more likely to take in the message being conveyed.

I really enjoyed this documentary and I think the ideas communicated in the program could and should be shared on a much larger scale but there would have to be some serious consideration into the logistics of it successfully working in a school environment.

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