I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would wear to prison.
I’d just been granted the rare opportunity to visit three prisons to interview participants of an educational program, as part of a program evaluation I was conducting for a non-profit I’ve worked with for a number of years. A camera crew would join me to document the interviews that I was recording on my hand-held device.
The organization, World Impact, Inc., offers a 4-year theological training program (called The Urban Ministry Institute, or TUMI) that equips men and women to be pastors in their community — men and women who might not otherwise be able to complete a college seminary degree due to financial, time, or entrance constraints. In addition to offering the training program to men and women in communities of poverty, TUMI is also available inside 68 correctional facilities throughout the United States.
I had been given access to a place where few people are allowed to go, and I didn’t want to blow the opportunity. I’d traveled over 1500 miles, filled out the necessary paperwork, and had been granted clearance to enter three prisons in the Houston area. There wouldn’t be another chance to get this right.
A lot was riding on my appearance.
I had an unspoken goal to be the one person who’d been granted access inside prison walls with whom they felt comfortable enough to bare their souls, and I didn’t want my choice of clothing to be the one thing that stood in the way.
I wanted to appear professional, but not so professional that inmates would perceive me as unapproachable. I wanted to appear polished, but not too “put together.” I wanted to look attractive and likable, but not so much that I would seem seductive.
I desperately wanted to avoid coming across as too professional for fear they wouldn’t feel comfortable opening up to me. I was terrified that they’d judge me as “unsafe,” and I’d stand there, asking questions of an audience who would respond with silence and cold stares. I also wanted to appear calm, cool and collected. Nothing must stand in the way of my goal.
They had to find me trustworthy, capable, attentive, responsive, and relatable if I wanted to gather meaningful data. And they’d…